CStore Decisions recently spoke with Dr. Nancy Caldarola, president of The Food Training Group, to learn more about what c-stores can do to keep
employees and customers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
First and foremost, Caldarola advised retailers to follow guidelines of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Board of Health. And as new ideas and regulations surrounding COVID-19 emerge daily, pay close attention to the latest updates for your area.
While the food safety rules in place today are solid in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19, the problem, Caldarola said, is that not everyone follows them.
“If we’re doing food safely in the store, we don’t have to worry about food,” she said. “But there are a lot of things to think about because (COVID-19) is so different, it’s not like anything we’ve seen before. The business of doing business as usual, we can’t do.”
Fortunately, there are some things we can do:
Hand-washing has always been a vital step in food safety. Cited as one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19, its importance can’t be overstated, and employees must be trained on proper hand-washing techniques and protocols.
“We want to make sure everybody is well aware that, if you handle food, you have to wash your hands before you touch the food and after,” said Caldarola.
In states or stores where gloves are required when handling food, hand-washing is imperative before putting gloves on and after removing them.
Recent USDA research conducted in test kitchens found that participants did not even attempt to wash their hands 70-75% of the time when it was required.
When they did, many participants did not scrub their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Other errors included not wetting their hands with water before applying soap and not drying their hands with a clean or one-use towel.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advises washing hands after touching an item or surface in a public place that may be frequently touched by other people, as well as before touching one’s eyes, nose or mouth.
During COVID-19, Caldarola suggested taking a close look at which products you’re offering.
For example, fruits with edible peels, like apples, might pose a risk. Self-serve foodservice has also been a point of consideration, with c-stores in different areas halting roller grill and self-serve coffee in accordance with local regulations or out of caution.
“A food offer has got to be looked at a little closer than we have in the past,” said Caldarola. “(When it comes to self-service food), you can’t control what’s happening over the counter. Not everybody’s going to be as careful, and we know that.”
But customers can still have their foodservice favorites if employees serve them instead.
Caldarola also recommended using floor stickers six feet apart to encourage social distancing and allowing only a certain number of people in the store at any given time.
“That’s one of the biggest things people are really nervous about,” she said. “You may have to have an extra person that’s controlling the door, so you don’t let too many people in.”
Stores must also be cleaned and sanitized more frequently, Caldarola said. “They should be constantly doing any kind of sanitation that they can,” she said. “Everything has got to be clean. Everything. All the time.”
To ensure employees are not infected by COVID-19, Caldarola suggested taking employees’ temperatures at the start of each shift.
If an employee tests positive, the entire store must be cleaned thoroughly after they leave, and employees who have come in contact with them should self-quarantine for the recommended 14 days.
In a c-store environment, “a typical employee isn’t in one area; they walk around the whole store. So that’s going to take a lot of work,” she said.
Caldarola added that providing paid sick leave is another way to discourage infected employees from coming to work and spreading the virus, or any kind of illness.
Personal protective equipment may also be effective in limiting the spread of the virus, such as gloves, face masks and shields at the register. On April 3, the CDC adjusted its recommendations to include that Americans wear non-medical cloth face coverings when in public to prevent the spread of the virus by asymptomatic carriers.
On April 8, New Jersey began requiring all employees and customers at essential businesses to wear face coverings. Workers are also required to wear gloves if they’re interacting with customers. Other cities and counties have enacted similar mandates. Check the laws or guidance set by your governor and other local officials.
Required or not, an additional benefit of face masks and other protective gear is that they communicate to customers that you’re doing everything possible to keep them safe, said Caldarola.
And even if you follow all protcols to a T, even if you do everything right, customers won’t know unless you tell them.
“You have to post the signage,” said Caldarola. “Signage is very important. Make it a point to have signage in place that is talking about what is being done.”