“Theater of Hygiene” and what the catering industry looks like in the future

“Hygiene theater” in progress; Credit: Reuters Photo

American restaurants have become sanitation barons over the past year, taking on the duty of constantly cleaning high-stress surfaces such as tables, menus, chairs, doorknobs and, of course, kitchen cabinets. bathroom. Small businesses, including those here in Rockland, have been mandated by local and state governments to go to war with latex gloves, bleach and disinfectant wipes, to decontaminate every square inch of countertop or floor to protect the safety of customers and employees. Unfortunately, this cleanliness comes at a cost. The price of personal protective equipment (PPE) alone has put financial pressure on small businesses, in addition to customer capacity mandates and the expense of maintaining take-out orders. But does this extra expense actually help anyone? The CDC has reported that the rate of surface transmission of COVID remains extremely low, calling into question some aspects of state-sanctioned sanitation. What do Rockland business owners think of the state’s seemingly futile hygiene guidelines and practices, and what does the future of small business look like after the impact of the pandemic?

“Based on the available epidemiological data and studies of environmental transmission factors,” the CDC concluded, “surface transmission is not the primary route through which SARS-CoV-2 is spread, and the risk is considered low. This credible information has led business owners, health bloggers, journalists and even doctors to call excessive surface sanitation a “theater of hygiene.” This straightforward term refers to the exercise of taking sanitary measures that aim to give an illusion of safety while doing little to reduce any risk. Psychologically, many can feel immune to illness when they witness a facility’s efforts to reduce pathogens, especially during the height of the COVID pandemic. More will support their local businesses and dine at their favorite restaurants, under the guise of a sterilized environment. Nonetheless, this inefficient practice can actually be detrimental to businesses as they find it difficult to pay other expenses when they have to cover the cost of PPE equipment, largely on their own.

In fact, not only is the “hygienic theater” a financial barrier for businesses, but can also be a health hazard. “At the same time, there have been reports of an increase in poisoning and injuries due to the unsafe use of cleaners and disinfectants since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ”said Rockland County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert. “Therefore, this intense (and potentially expensive) practice is probably unnecessary in most settings such as the home or when using public tables and benches.”

Nicholas Lambos, the manager of AquaTerra Grille in Pearl River, has had to adapt quickly to comply with state COVID-19 regulations to operate his restaurant. State-mandated health protocols enforced at restaurants like AquaTerra Grille included limited capacity, socially distanced tables, staff required to wear masks at all times, guests required to wear masks whenever they needed. ‘they rose from their seats, and the persistent cleaning and disinfection of all surfaces and utensils. Was it fair and reasonable for state health services to apply such guidelines? “To some extent, yes,” Lambos said. “However, I think there was no need to impose social distancing for outdoor dining,” he continued. This app was designed with the assumption that it was a health threat to have people within six feet of each other outside without face coverings. “Mandatory security protocols haven’t been good for my business,” Lambos said. “I was forced to operate with limited capacity and lost all of my catering events, which is a big part of my business. As evidenced by stories such as Lambos’s, the procedures required were not entirely favorable to businesses that were already struggling during the pandemic. Substantial portions of the restaurant industry depend on income from catering events which, in large part, have been closed.

The AquaTerra Grille outdoor seating area in Pearl River, where manager Nicholas Lambos had to make adjustments based on health guidelines from the New York State Department of Health. Photo credit: Table of the valley

“The practices were expensive to maintain,” Lambos noted. “The cost of PPE equipment like gloves and cleaning chemicals has increased throughout the pandemic. The hygiene theater can take limited resources for more critical needs. New York City announced more than $ 100 million last year on new cleaning and disinfectant practices, and here in Rockland County, companies were to pledge “health and safety.” Security”. In particular, companies with limited funds are struggling to afford PPE equipment that doesn’t have much use, in light of CDC research. While businesses like Aqua Terra have been luckier than most, others have been shut down altogether. A March 2021 report by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli cited Census Bureau data revealing that 78% of companies with fewer than 500 employees are still suffering the negative effects of the pandemic a year later.

A Restaurant Association investigation found that despite increased capacity and increased demand for off-site delivery and consumption during COVID, the majority of New York City restaurants were unable to recoup more than 30% of their revenue. lost due to the pandemic and the government. restrictions imposed, according to a Lohud report from March 2021.

“The support of our local community is what kept us going through the pandemic,” Lambos said. “Our ‘regulars’ ordered take out every week and generously tipped our team members.” Community support is crucial for small businesses when state government often fails to take into account the specific needs of specific businesses. Flexibility and innovation were also essential to determine the success of a business. “We have operated with a very small team for most of the pandemic,” Lambos said. “We’ve added more team members over time, but we’ve learned to work more efficiently with fewer people. Restaurants like AquaTerra Grille had no choice but to obey state orders or face the possibility of being closed. In adapting to the guidelines, Lambos had to make the quick decision to readjust the availability of its employees.

Despite these frustrations, Lambos of course supports common sense sanitation and strives to keep his restaurant pristine. “Maintaining cleanliness was a priority for us even before the pandemic,” Lambos said. By cleaning the surfaces, it is very likely that we can destroy germ bacteria and prevent possible diseases. “In some settings (ie healthcare settings) these practices remain important,” said Dr Ruppert. However, state governments must “listen to the science” and accept that COVID, an airborne contagion, is unlikely to be transferred from a counter. It is illogical to require excessive disinfection of such surfaces. Encouraging mask wear, reasonable social distancing and moving events outside is the optimal approach, according to Emanuel Goldman, professor of microbiology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

In June, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that fully vaccinated New Yorkers would not have to wear face covers in most settings. Unvaccinated people, however, are still responsible for continuing to wear a mask, according to federal guidelines from the CDC. “We will not require our guests to wear masks, but they are more than welcome if they wish,” Lambos said. Many companies can move forward with the principle of personal health freedom, after more than 70% of COVID restrictions are lifted in New York State.

Going forward, companies must be prepared to adapt to unfamiliar challenges by establishing methods for success in the industry. The AquaTerra Grille Lambos had their own idea. “Due to the popularity of takeout during the pandemic, I started a concept of ‘ghost food’ out of AquaTerra called Pita Greek. This is a great option for me as it is a way for me to expand my audience and provide my clientele with another dining option in the same kitchen. This has been a huge success for us and we are planning to open a brick and mortar location soon.

Sadly, not all businesses may have had the financial resources to create meaningful options for consumers during COVID. This is where the money spent on PPE could have been reallocated to the personal decisions of business owners.

COVID has awakened America’s sense of mass anxiety and led us to adopt pseudo-security measures, a pattern that matches our response to the rise of terrorism. leads to an intense sanitation of surfaces. These practices can make us feel secure, but do not eliminate any real risk. If we want to show care and respect for others, we can wear masks and social distancing and patronize our local business, if that is comfortable. Awareness is vital and we need to understand the reality of our sanitation efforts. The obsession with contaminated surfaces can distract us from effective ways to fight COVID.

The fate of businesses is in the hands of the local government. If an establishment chooses to clean its surfaces, then it has its own right. However, the health ministry should reconsider its misguided disinfection mandates for companies that cannot afford it and can benefit from disbursing their funds at their own discretion.

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Cecil N. Messick

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