NATIONAL REPORT — Safety and sanitation have always been important to convenience store foodservice programs, but in the age of COVID-19, they are absolutely critical.
Maintaining the health and well-being of both customers and employees should be a top priority for retailers, and a proper plan can mean the difference between profitability or loss, according to a recent Convenience Store News webinar.
C-store operators must be sure that their staff follows proper public health protocols, and customers need to be confident that their choice of c-store will not result in their illness.
Fundamental precautions during the pandemic include an understanding that while COVID-19 primarily spreads person to person, viral particles can be transmitted to hard surfaces. As such, c-stores should focus on equipping employees with proper personal protective equipment (PPE), discontinuing self-service stations, and enforcing social distancing, advised webinar presenter Nancy Caldarola, PhD, RDN, and hospitality and food safety consultant at Concept Associates Inc.
Details matter. Masks, gloves and face shields with visors need to fit properly, and a face shield without a mask is not sufficient. These items themselves also need to be handled carefully as they bring some risk of contact transmission if users aren't careful.
Enforcing social distancing within the store can help keep things under control, although Caldarola acknowledged this can be difficult when it comes to customers.
"It's hard because a lot of people do line up to pay," she said, recommending signage to offer physical guidance and a reminder of the importance of spacing out.
Having a supply of disposable masks on hand to give to customers before they enter the store has also helped to boost compliance with safety measures, she noted.
On the staff side, Caldarola stressed that employees must stay home if they show signs of illness. Operators can encourage this through proper training and offering sick pay.
"COVID-19 can happen anywhere and to anyone," stressed fellow webinar presenter Chirag H. Bhatt, president of CHB Food Safety Consulting. That said, if an employee tests positive for the virus, that doesn't necessarily mean the store needs to fully shut down.
If it has been less than seven days since a sick employee was in the facility, Bhatt said retailers should close off any areas where that employee spent prolonged periods of time, and then wait 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting. Opening doors, windows and other openings also can help airflow circulation in case of lingering virus particles.
If it has been more than seven days since a sick employee was in the facility, no shutdown or additional cleaning is necessary, although he said retailers should be routinely cleaning and disinfecting all high-touch surfaces.
Sick employees who are symptomatic may discontinue isolation if: it has been at least 10 days since onset; they have spent at least 24 hours free of fever, without the use of medication to lower a fever; and other symptoms have improved. Asymptomatic employees who test positive for COVID-19 may discontinue isolation and other precautions 10 days after the date of their first positive PCR test.
It is also important, he pointed out, to determine which employees have been in close contact with a sick coworker in order to perform contact tracing.
Bhatt encourages retailers to work with their local health department and follow whatever protocols are in place.
"You may feel they're your enemy. In reality, they are actually your ally," he said.
While there is no evidence that COVID-19 is caught through consuming food, Caldarola acknowledged that the virus does have food safety implications. She shared the following practical approaches for maintaining food safety:
Simplify procedures wherever possible;
Provide staff with accessible training materials and visual cues for proper procedures;
Lead by example; and
Encourage a food safety culture to ensure accountability at all levels.
An on-demand replay of this webinar, "C-store Food Safety & Public Health During a Pandemic," is available by clicking here. The program was sponsored by Sani Professional.