More Layers of Protection

Convenience store owners and managers must continually emphasize the importance of food safety practices to their employees. Regular cleaning, avoiding cross-contamination, holding foods at proper temperatures, etc., will help c-stores avoid food safety breaches, including foodborne illness outbreaks, norovirus incidents, etc. Now, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means every foodservice business must add additional layers of safety protocols to their routines. 

Convenience store employees must embrace the new COVID-19 protocols, including more frequent/thorough cleaning and disinfecting, enforcing social distancing, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), implementing one-way traffic patterns, and limiting store capacity. These new COVID-19 protocols are in addition to basic food safety practices. Every employee, across every location and shift, must comply with these safety protocols to minimize risks.

COVID-19 (coronavirus) is a new, highly contagious disease that is asymptomatic in some people, but can cause serious symptoms or even death in others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that COVID-19 is spread by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough or sneeze. The virus may also spread to hands from contaminated surfaces.

COVID-19 is clearly a long-term problem, requiring new protocols and ongoing vigilance. Convenience stores, like all food businesses, must make significant and continuous changes to help protect their employees and guests from contracting coronavirus.

Minimize risk by doing the following:

Elevate your food safety culture. It’s not enough just to instruct employees to follow the rules. Instead, explain why the rules are so important, and employees will be more likely to comply. Leadership must embrace and model this elevated culture and “walk the walk” by following the rules themselves (e.g., wearing PPE in the store, washing their hands frequently, etc.).

Wash your hands. Handwashing is the No. 1 way to prevent the spread of disease, including COVID-19. Employees must wash their hands with soap and warm water for a minimum of 30 seconds. Wash hands frequently, including after using the restroom; coughing or sneezing; using cleaning products; or touching money, garbage, cellphones, doorknobs, or any other potentially contaminated surface. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol can be used in between customer interactions (e.g., at the cash register), but isn’t a substitute for proper handwashing.

Train employees regularly. Ongoing training is essential and should include all protocols, from food safety basics to the new COVID-19 requirements. Be certain that all employees are compliant and take immediate corrective actions if they aren’t.

Don’t let employees work when sick. Don’t allow employees to work if they have a temperature of 100.4 or higher, or are showing symptoms of COVID-19, norovirus or other contagious illnesses. If employees have been exposed to COVID-19, they should self-quarantine for 14 days, per CDC guidelines.

Elevate cleaning and disinfecting efforts. Clean and disinfect your entire store — especially high-touch areas — throughout the day, using chemicals that meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for killing COVID-19. Frequently clean surfaces such as counters and high-touch items such as doorknobs, refrigerator door handles, coffee pots, and credit card keypads.

Implement COVID-19 safety protocols. Require personal protective equipment (PPE) — including masks — based on recommendations from the CDC and your local jurisdiction. Limit store capacity to avoid crowds of people gathering. Enforce social distancing, ensuring that employees and customers remain 6 feet apart. Implement one-way traffic patterns. Place hand sanitizer (that contains at least 60 percent alcohol) throughout customer service areas.

Use digital tools. Digital tools help ensure that critical safety protocols are being followed correctly, providing numerous advantages over pen and paper systems. Going digital will help your store(s) increase accuracy and transparency, collecting and analyzing key data across the enterprise. This allows your leaders to make more informed decisions based on data, identify trends, see hot spots, and take corrective actions as necessary. Today’s digital tools are widely accessible, affordable and user-friendly.

Encourage customers to use touchless payment options. Minimize handling cash, credit cards, reward cards and mobile devices whenever possible. Disinfect the counter and use hand sanitizer between each customer.  

Post signs, barriers and other reminders of the COVID-19 protocols.  Signs should reiterate social distancing guidelines, remind employees and customers to wear PPE, and encourage frequent handwashing. Add floor markings to reinforce proper social distancing and one-way traffic flow.

Eliminate shared objects. Discontinue salad bars and shared fountain/drink stations. Offer single-use condiment packets instead of shared ketchup/mustard bottles. Don’t allow customers to bring in potentially contaminated items from home, such as reusable cups.

Ensure proper ventilation. Be certain that your facility’s ventilation systems operate properly. Increase circulation of outdoor air whenever possible by opening windows and doors.

Stay informed on the latest COVID-19 information. Information on coronavirus changes often, so stay up to date via reputable websites like the CDC, Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health. Design a COVID-19 point of contact for each location and shift, who can communicate with their teams, answer questions, and handle any issues that arise. Be certain that all employees receive — and understand — updated information on COVID-19 protocols, coronavirus symptoms, etc.

While COVID-19 is obviously top of mind right now, don’t lose sight of other important food safety protocols. Train employees around COVID policies while also reinforcing the importance of basic food safety rules. It’s important for convenient stores to mitigate COVID-19 risks, as well as other food safety breaches, to keep employees and guests safer.

Francine L. Shaw is president of Savvy Food Safety Inc. a company that offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, developing norovirus policies, and more. She is also helping companies develop COVID-19 policies, response plans, training programs, and employee pre-shift health assessments.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.