Restaurants in Keene and surrounding communities are ramping up their cleaning routines to reassure customers, who seem to be eating out less often in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The N.H. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday the state’s seventh presumptive positive case of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. The virus can spread between people who are within about six feet of each other, as well as in droplets released when someone coughs or sneezes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Restaurants that are issuing statements online regarding the disease are laying out their regular cleaning procedures, which have become more thorough and detailed as a result of the outbreak. The owners of Keene eateries Lindy’s and Willie Mac’s Pub and Restaurant, as well as The Flight Deck in Swanzey, said staff members are now sanitizing ketchup bottles and salt and pepper shakers after a table is emptied.
A few places are switching up their menus to materials that are easier to clean. Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery in Brattleboro is temporarily ditching its tablets and opting for disposable paper. Machina Kitchen & ArtBar in Keene, as well as Superfresh Organic Cafe in Brattleboro, both announced plans to laminate their paper menus.
At Prime Roast Coffee Co. in Keene, baristas are temporarily not accepting customers’ reusable cups, and the cafe has shelved its dishes, sticking to disposables for now. On social media Sunday evening, the business urged guests to “grab and go,” noting that cafe seating will be spaced out.
Health codes already require food preparers and servers to wash their hands frequently, but many businesses are reminding customers of the fact and making hand sanitizer available, too. A Facebook post by the Peterborough Diner said its servers are wearing gloves throughout their shifts.
Both state and federal law require employees to report symptoms or diagnosis of a communicable disease and in many cases go home, which the bulk of area restaurants have said their staff members will do if they appear ill — but that’s a hard ask for workers who aren’t paid for sick time.
Some national chains are answering calls to solve that dilemma for their employees, including a few with area locations.
Darden Restaurants — which owns Longhorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden, among other brands — rolled out a paid sick-leave policy last week. The company said it had been working on it for a while but expedited the process in the midst of the pandemic.
McDonald’s is offering paid time off for employees of corporate-owned restaurants who are asked to quarantine, but it’s unclear whether that would cover workers who are symptomatic but not asked to isolate themselves.
Starbucks, which already offered its employees sick pay, has added COVID-19 to its catastrophe pay program. If a worker shows symptoms, self-quarantines or needs to care for loved ones due to the disease, the program pays for 14 days. The coffee company has also stopped offering food samples and using customer-owned mugs and cups. Starbucks announced Sunday that many of its company-owned stores would temporarily close or cut hours during the crisis and has switched to a to-go format with no seating.
Dunkin’ has similarly halted its samples and ceased using customers’ reusable cups. The company is also requiring franchises and their crews to retake food safety training, and all nonessential meetings and travel have been canceled.
Locally, Whetstone Station is one of the only eateries to publicly announce, in a Facebook post, that its employees receive paid sick time.
Tracy Gunn, who owns The Flight Deck and Willie Mac’s, acknowledged the difficulty hourly workers face in this regard and sympathized with their plight.
“It’s a hard thing, and I don’t know that I have an answer for that,” she said.
But the businesses themselves are struggling, too. Many local restaurant owners reported a decline in customers over the past week as news of the coronavirus outbreak spread.
Lindy’s co-owner Carroll Stubbs, who bought the diner in November, said there were half as many customers Saturday than expected.
Gunn said both of her restaurants saw dramatic drop-offs.
“We had one customer on Friday at The Flight Deck,” she said. “Normally it’s one of our busiest lunches.”
And Saturday saw about a third of the restaurant’s normal business. Willie Mac’s was quiet all week, she added, with Wednesday night’s trivia canceled after one incomplete team showed up. Normally, 30 to 40 people attend, Gunn said.
Several places are turning to delivery as a way to continue serving people who may prefer to stay home and avoid crowds.
Gunn said all of her businesses are offering free delivery, which she hopes might be a comfort to anyone concerned about the exposure of DoorDash drivers, who interact with multiple people’s homes and food containers.
For its part, DoorDash sent emails to users this weekend that outline its own precautions, such as providing its “Dashers” with hand sanitizer and gloves and rolling out what it describes as a “no-contact delivery” option — users can instruct the Dasher to leave the food at a particular drop-off location.
Machina Kitchen is one of many eateries to join DoorDash, which co-owner Danya Landis said happened conveniently just before the outbreak.
While the staff at Machina is taking steps to keep the place clean and comfortable for patrons — including canceling or postponing live performance events for the next three weeks — she said the team is also working on a creative way to give people a “special restaurant experience” in their homes.
“We are here to be a part of this community and to have a space that people can be together and kind of get through this together,” Landis said, “but if you feel uncomfortable going out, that’s completely OK too.
“… You come first. Take care of you. But we’re here, and we’re doing our absolute best to take care of each individual that is here.”