A Hong Kong-based hospitality company has some suggestions for how American restaurateurs can reopen for business during the coronavirus pandemic—including a “health declaration form” that all guests must sign before they can enter the restaurant.
Founded in 2012 by Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark, Black Sheep Restaurants operates 23 niche restaurants in Hong Kong, from the celebrated Italian-American eatery Carbone on Wyndham Street to Rajasthan Rifles, described as an “Anglo-Indian mess hall” in The Peak Galleria, and a Neapolitan pizzeria called Motorino.
Like most Chinese foodservice companies, Black Sheep Restaurants faces an uphill climb as it tries to reopen for business after the coronavirus pandemic, which has thus far claimed 4,633 lives in that country (although China is suspected of underreporting its numbers).
As U.S. states relax their own coronavirus restrictions and some restaurants resume dine-in service, many American restaurant operators are looking to their Asian colleagues for guidance. “The most pragmatic thing we need to figure out right now is safety protocol,” celebrity restaurateur David Chang told the New York Times recently. “We are all asking for that, and no one really knows.”
According to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), most restaurants in China are required to adhere to a limit of 50 percent capacity and no more than four diners per party. Some have installed table dividers to maintain social distancing requirements. Masked employees at Yardbird Hong Kong even stand at the door and point a gun-like digital thermometer at every guest’s head to take their temperature—those with a fever are turned away, as are those who aren’t wearing masks.
For Black Sheep Restaurants, Hussain is thinking more long-term. “We are working with our architects and looking into more permanent floorplan changes and partition screens between tables,” he told NRN.
To help other restaurateurs feel their way through this thorny situation, Black Sheep Restaurants has made its COVID-19 Playbook available to the public. It’s a 17-page guide for reopening restaurant dine-in service during and after the pandemic.
The rules for employees, as outlined in the playbook, are fairly uncontroversial, such as:
- Handwashing every 30 minutes and hand sanitizers and wipes made available “absolutely everywhere”
- Masks must be available and mandatory for all
- Sanitizing of all shared surfaces every 30 minutes and a deep-clean sanitization by an outside company every 10 days
- No physical contact, such as handshakes, high fives or fist bumps
- Use of contactless thermometers and daily mandatory temperature checks for all employees upon arrival to work
But one rule is sure to stir up controversy, especially if attempted in the U.S. Every guest at a Black Sheep-owned restaurant must sign a Health Declaration Form and provide their personal contact information before being admitted into the restaurant.
By signing the form, the customer attests that in the past 14 days he has not tested positive for the coronavirus or experienced any of the symptoms, hasn’t traveled outside of Hong Kong and hasn’t come into direct contact or the immediate vicinity of anyone known to be carrying the coronavirus or who has traveled outside of Hong Kong recently.
“If guests decline to complete the form, do not be afraid to turn them away (we had to turn more than 50 guests away in one night),” the playbook states. “They may be upset in the moment, but it is absolutely the right thing to do to protect your team and your guests. It feels uncomfortable because we are in the business of hospitality, but we have to understand the reality of the new world we exist in.”
How would a health declaration form fly in the U.S.? Considering that groups of armed protesters have poured into state government buildings to oppose any kind of government regulations restricting the spread of COVID-19, asking customers to sign a form and provide their contact data will likely be considered overreach.
But at least one American restaurant chain has announced a policy with some similarities to Black Sheep’s rules. As Buzzfeed News reports, the O’Charley’s restaurant chain, with 200 locations in 17 states, has said it will test every guest’s temperature and ask them questions about their health before allowing them to enter. The chain recorded its new procedures in an eight-page document—and there are a lot of procedures. According to Buzzfeed, employees have to wear gloves, then wash their hands and replace the gloves every time they serve another table. They also have to wash their hands every time after handling money or credit cards.
However, some unnamed O’Charley’s employees told Buzzfeed the rules aren’t just impractical and virtually impossible to follow—they’re not even being enforced. “I don’t think we should have opened,” one server told Buzzfeed. “There’s no possible way for us employees to do what they’re asking us to do. It’s just not possible.” She added that replacing their gloves for every new table “is not even in the back of our minds.”
Which just goes to prove that no one really knows yet how to reopen safely in the current environment—and only time will tell whether existing guidelines and practices are good enough to protect customers and employees from the virus.
Besides, no matter how carefully you plan ahead, some customers will still fight you on the rules, especially in the U.S. Hussain acknowledges this risk in the introduction to Black Sheep’s COVID-19 playbook. “Prepare for criticism because no matter what you do, it will come,” he writes. “But if you are doing what you believe in your heart of hearts is right, the negativity tends not to pierce as deeply. We are conflicted every day about whether we are doing the right thing by keeping the restaurants open. Even with the strictest protocols in place, we know we are exposing our teams and possibly being part of the problem.
“For now, we are living day to day, and every day that our team stays healthy and the restaurants stay open is a win for us. If the situation declines and [the] government mandates a shutdown, we will be the first to get behind it. But until then we have a duty to our 1000+ community, many of whom have no financial buffer, to do everything we can to keep the lights on in their homes, keep their kids enrolled in school and a roof over their heads.”