The experts all agreed that if you and your employees are masked, the risk of getting infected with and spreading the virus falls dramatically.

The National Restaurant Association’s recent webinar on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic featured Larry Lynch, its SVP of Science & Industry, and Drs. Vishnu Chundi, Stephen Ondra, and Edward Linn of the Chicago Medical Society. They talked about how the delta variant is causing an increase in positive cases—mostly among unvaccinated populations—and how state and local mandates requiring proof of vaccination and/or face coverings are also on the rise.


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The four said to rely on the science behind the effectiveness of the precautions when enforcing mandates, and use the information to develop consistent, effective messaging that explains the restaurant’s policies and efforts to keep guests and employees safe indoors.

“Unfortunately, behavior doesn't change easily, but the variants do,” Chundi said. “The delta variant has changed this pandemic. It's a fundamentally a different virus than the Wu Han strain. It gets people sicker faster, so the old rules we lived with are changed.”

What it means

It’s not going away anytime soon. The delta variant is 50% more infectious than the original strain, according to the doctors, so there’s a high risk of rapid progression and explosive outbreak, which is what we're seeing around the country. There are more variants that doctors and scientists are concerned about: Epsilon, Zeta, Eta Kappa Theta, and Lambda could cause the next outbreaks.

Two important takeaways

Chundi said there’s one-thousand times more virus in the nose and throat with the delta variant than in previous strains.

  1. Where it once took about 15 minutes of close contact to get infected, it’s now somewhere between 1 and 8 seconds when in contact with an unvaccinated individual in an unmasked, indoor location. It invades the immune system better.
     
  2. Masking significantly prevents infection. If you and all of your employees are masked, the risk of getting infected and spreading falls dramatically, he said. “I recommend all employees in restaurants wear masks. It also sets a great example for guests who come in, even though I don't think restaurants should be in the business of policing their patrons; that's a different deal.”

Some practical advice

Ondra told operators to think about things in three separate, but related buckets:

  • Your staff
  • Your patrons
  • The public and your business

4 tips to deploy

  1. Request vaccination or vigorous testing. Ondra said that even though it’s a double-edged sword, you could require vaccinations of employees, though it could impact hiring. His suggestion is to request vaccinations for employees but give the option for testing 2 or 3 times a week. “This may lead to some staff loss or hiring challenges in the near-term, but it will save you from a wave of infection that could go through your staff, severely damage operations or even cause your restaurant to fully close.”
     
  2. Communicate and educate employees. Sometimes, people believe independent experts, but belief is often most closely tied with people they know. Ask your staff influencers to encourage their peers to get vaccinated.
     
  3. Suggest guests follow CDC guidelines. The CDC now recommends masks for anyone in indoor places where people gather. This is tough for restaurants and bars, but it can be done whenever they’re not seated at tables and actively eating. People walking by or in lobbies should mask. Also, put up signage to explain the policies. That, combined with mask requirements, plus your staff in masks, can help avoid, or at least minimize, the need to de-escalate heightened tensions.
     
  4. Create a communication plan. Establish standards and communication points that are applicable across your operation or brand. Anchor that with CDC guidelines and other scientific information. From there, you can modify your plan based on local requirements and local conditions.

Take a deeper dive… Download the webinar