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Starbucks Exposure Shows Fast Food’s Vulnerability to Covid-19



Friday’s announcement that a barista in a Seattle Starbucks was diagnosed with Covid-19 made real what fast-food chains have been preparing for since the coronavirus arrived in the U.S. two months ago.

Starbucks Corp., like other national chains such as McDonald’s Corp., met regularly with employees to explain risks and detail how to minimize them. And like other food-serving companies, its workers started sanitizing like crazy in anticipation that a highly communicable illness that’s killed 14 Americans -- 13 of them in the greater Seattle area -- could be stopped.

They learned just how difficult that is. And as human suffering spreads, economic toll will follow.

While Americans are taking precautions, such as staying home with the sniffles, replacing on-site meetings with conference calls and pushing open doors with their shoulders rather than their hands, fast-food places join businesses such as cruise lines, airlines and car-rental companies in seeing their operations threatened by the virus’s rapid proliferation. For the dining industry, it’s particularly complicated. Employees can’t work from home, money is exchanged and meals are handled.

A drop in sales may be inevitable, according to a recent survey by restaurant-industry researcher Technomic. Though the coronavirus hasn’t been a concern in the U.S. long enough to be reflected in sales figures, about one-third of Americans say it’ll make them stick closer to home, staying away from restaurants and ordering take-out less often, the report said.

“Consumers could potentially cocoon themselves in their homes and look for eating solutions that will not expose them to unnecessary social interactions,” the Technomic report said.

Restaurants are bracing for the worst. Sam Stanovich said business hasn’t fallen at his 14 Firehouse Subs franchises in the Chicago area, but he anticipates offices closing, curtailing corporate catering. Judy Nichols, who owns three Papa John’s pizza restaurants in southeastern Texas, said she’s thinking about reducing staff from the usual 10 on a Friday night to two because she was wants to minimize person-to-person contact. If it helps arrest the spread of coronavirus, Nichols said, she’s willing to hurt her own business.

McDonald’s, the world’s biggest restaurant company, has set up a new email address with “real-time response” for questions regarding coronavirus, Chief Executive Officer Chris Kempczinski said in an internal memo viewed by Bloomberg News.

Restaurants, like many public places, provide opportunities for the virus to spread, said David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and a former Obama administration official.

While it’s not thought to be the primary method of transmission, a person who touches a contaminated object -- a table, silverware, credit cards -- and then touches their mouth, nose or possibly eyes, may come down with the illness, Michaels said.
“People have to be encouraged if they have symptoms to stay home,” he said.

That’s more difficult if the workers lack paid sick leave, according to Bill Marler, an attorney at Seattle-based Marler Clark LLP who specializes in food safety.

“There are a lot of things that the food-service industry has not done a very good job at combating,” Marler said, including “the problem of not having sick-leave policy for employees.”

Starbucks said it learned from its experience in Asia, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, and it instructed baristas at its 14,000 U.S. locations to wipe down busy store areas every eight minutes.

The infected employee, whose name wasn’t released, was self-isolating at home and “feeling well,” Rossann Williams, the company’s head of U.S. retail, said in a statement posted on the Starbucks website. The store, at First and University in downtown Seattle, was closed and workers gave it a deep cleaning, she said. Authorities encouraged Starbucks to reopen the outlet, according to the statement.

Other fast-food places have been trying to keep the virus away. Workers at a Dunkin’ outlet in Chicago put a hand sanitizer near the cash register for customers to use and switched to disposable paper towels instead of the usual blue rags to clean dirty tables. Employees at Nichols’s Papa John’s franchise in Nederland, Texas, quit shaking hands. Instead, Nichols said they do what they call the “coronavirus fist-bump.” And at Noodles & Co. in the Chicago Loop, manager Joe Argos said he replaced all the metal flatware with plastic.

“It’s not just to protect our guests, but to protect our team members,” he said.

Argos said he couldn’t recall anything this extreme in his more than decade-long tenure at the chain.

“It’s a little scary,” he said.