Restaurant Sanitation in the Age of COVID-19

By Alfonso Gonzales and Melah Lofton

April 30, 2020

The last 30 days has ushered in an unprecedented new way of life for people around the world. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, routine activities such as grocery shopping, working out and going to school or work have been altered for the foreseeable future.

The restaurant industry is no exception to this change. From the implementation of social distancing to wearing gloves and masks in public, the culture of eating out — and for the time being carryout — has changed drastically. 

Credit : Creative Commons

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been strictly enforcing the statewide stay-at-home order, which was initially ordered by Gov. Pritzker on March 20. That means more than 7,300 registered Chicago restaurants have since closed their dining rooms to the public and have either closed entirely or are operating as takeout and delivery only.

Fernanda Lara, a Chicago Subway employee said working now is different because it is only her and her manager there.

Emphasizing social distancing, she added, “Around two people in the restaurant at most are ever-present. We just wait for orders to come in and we make them and then continue to wait for more, an endless cycle.”

The increased attention to food sanitation comes at a time when many Chicago restaurants have performed poorly, according to an analysis of restaurant inspections on the City of Chicago Data Portal. The data set showed that of the 7,300 establishments, over 85 percent are categorized as risk 1 (high risk) for adversely affecting the public’s health. The remaining 15 percent of locations make up the risk 2 (medium risk) and risk 3 (low risk) categories. 

Destiny Rivera, a former Subway employee, recalled her University Village employer being categorized as risk 1 (high) during her time there. 

“They prioritized prep and stockwork over cleaning, that was secondary,” Rivera said, “I felt I was the only one that made it (cleaning) a priority.”

When asked about the quality of cleaning done in the restaurant, Destiny described it as “Really bad, it wasn’t thorough at all. The knives for cutting sandwiches would be dirty, the plates too.” This lack of consideration for food safety and sanitation is an ever-present concern of many quarantined consumers counting on these establishments to follow hygienic protocol.

See interactive map to locate Subway locations through the Chicagoland area.

Subway currently has more physical locations than any other restaurant brand in the world, according to Forbes. The brand has thousands of registered locations within the U.S. and hundreds within the city of Chicago. Of the 4,053 total inspections across these locations, 4,022 times they were categorized as risk 1 (high).

This now raises the concern as to how establishments that have been deemed high risk for adversely affecting the public’s health, have remained open and under whose authority.

Subway corporate office was contacted to give a statement in regards to the aforementioned Chicago Subway locations and at the moment, have yet to respond.

According to the Food Code Rules of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Food Protection Program, establishment risk categorization is based on a number of factors. These include, but are not limited to, time/temperature control of food, the type of food preparation used, the presence of raw food, and the type of population the establishment serves.

Above is an interactive chart that illustrates the Subway locations that passed and failed their health inspections in Chicago.

However, it does not state that cleanliness is one of the factors taken into account. So, it can be concluded that risk categorization is not based on cleanliness, but on the food itself. The multitude of Subway restaurants categorized as risk 1 (high) is due to the type of food being handled in the establishment. The same goes for all restaurants throughout the city.

Restaurant and food sanitation is vital at a time like this. With the change of demeanor that restaurants nationwide are now conducting their business to remain open and available to the public, restaurant owners have had to change their business procedures to accommodate the new low-contact culture of the restaurant business for the time being.

In the age of technology and quick adaptation to current events, applications such as UberEats, Doordash, and GrubHub that serve for consumers as a delivery service for anything from groceries, to household items. These delivery applications have seen drastic jumps in usage as individuals take advantage of the ease of access these applications offer.

With restaurants only seeing traffic from employees and delivery drivers, restaurant owners could take advantage of this time to better their restaurants and create clean, healthy and welcoming environments for the crowds of people that are sure to become present as stay-at-home orders are lifted in the future.

When asked about how customers will react when restaurant in-dining reopens, Lara said, “I think people will be cautious for sure…For restaurants, I think they will accommodate more to their customers and try to present the best face. I think they will try to show their customers why they should continue to support that business.”

Here are the different risk levels that are used when categorizing restaurants through the health inspection process.

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