To date, the major impact of 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) on the onsite dining community in most of the United States has come not from any direct exposure but rather from how customers and clients are reacting to the potential crisis, as calls by businesses for employees to work from home impact onsite café and meeting catering sales, and suspending classes means less business for school and college dining programs. Also, cancelled conferences and less business travel mean less revenue for airport and conference/convention center caterers while potential cancellations of major sports and entertainment events would naturally impact venue concessionaires.
However, the segments affected most directly by the COVID-19 threat are in the healthcare area—hospitals as the front-line responders could as a result see a surge in traffic while senior living communities house what appears to be the demographic most vulnerable to the disease’s ravages and must therefore take the threat most seriously of all. In the shorter term, though, restrictions on visitors in healthcare facilities that are intended to limit potential introduction of the pathogen to the premises may also reduce retail dining revenues.
Most recently, classroom instruction cancellations have spread from the West Coast to include institutions like Columbia University and Hofstra University in New York, Princeton University in New Jersey and the Ohio State University system in the Midwest. Also several school districts in New York and New Jersey, New England and even Wisconsin and Nebraska have canceled classes, with the common denominator being the presence in the community of some individual in the district with a confirmed case of COVID-19. By that criterion, many more such cancellations can be expected as the contagion spreads.
For our most up-to-date coverage, visit the coronavirus homepage.
However, until recently, the biggest direct impact of the COVID-19 threat has been on the West Coast, where a nursing home in Washington has experienced at least half a dozen deaths attributed to the virus, and where a number of school districts have subsequently been temporarily closed. In California, where Elk Grove USD, the largest district in Northern California, is already closed due to COVID-19 fears, more closings are expected.
In addition, major West Coast universities such as the University of Washington and Stanford University have cancelled classes, though dining services at both remain in operation, while mega businesses such as Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook are advising employees who can work from home to do so.
Clean, well-sanitized spaces
A call-around to operators in the markets FM covers found great reluctance to talk about the issue in all but the most general terms, and many dining directors preferred to refer to policy statements from administrators and institution spokespersons.
Nevertheless, a number of common themes did emerge, not surprisingly led by an intense emphasis on maintaining solid sanitation practices ranging from frequent hand washing by employees to cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and surfaces. Meanwhile, dining staff are being urged to stay home if they are feeling at all sick, especially with respiratory symptoms.
That was the message stressed by Compass Group USA, the country’s largest contract management company, with operations in most onsite dining segments.
“We understand the importance of making sure our dining operations have what they need to deal with the potential impact of the new coronavirus,” says Ann Sheridan, vice president of communication. “To do that, we are relentless in our communication [including] providing information on prevention, updates on our preparedness efforts and the latest information from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The World Health Organization (WHO).”
The company also has a cross-functional team that is staying on top of the situation to ensure the health and safety of its associates, while minimizing the impact on clients. The team meets daily and then communicates any pertinent information to teams in the field, where stringent health and hygiene standards are being reinforced in close adherence to all guidelines and recommendations from the CDC and WHO.
Elior North America, whose Cura unit operates dining in the critical hospital and senior living markets, has a response team monitoring the situation, working with key suppliers to ensure an adequate food supply and developing a labor contingency plan in case its sites are impacted by the virus. The company has also asked its onsite teams to develop contingency plans for their individual communities and notes that in addition to its onsite food production operations, it also has the capability of turning out shelf-stable and frozen meal options through its Traditions and Preferred Meal units, as well as providing home delivered and congregate meals through its TRIO brand.
“[We] are letting our clients know about these additional options, which may be of critical significance in any impacted site or community,” says a company spokesperson.
The Association of Healthcare Foodservices (AHF) is maintaining an updated coronavirus resource guide for its hospital and senior living community members, with an emphasis on education about both the disease and how to prevent its spread.
At major employers and universities, because of the volumes involved, even a few days of limited or shuttered meal service can have an appreciable impact on the finances of the onsite dining departments. For universities with significant meal plan revenue bases from large resident student populations, the impact is muted because the money has already been received; however, suspending onsite classes will hurt retail sales from commuters.
And if the crisis should stretch through the spring, causing extended class cancellations, resident students may start leaving campuses, which in turn could in turn prompt calls for refunds of prorated portions of meal plans.
Universities are also dealing with how to handle students who had been studying overseas in countries where COVID-19 has become prevalent, and foreign students from those countries. The CDC is asking schools to “consider” postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs.
That’s asking a lot as about a million of the almost 19 million college students in the United States come from overseas, including some 370,000 from China, the COVID-19 epicenter. Meanwhile, about 342,000 students from the U.S. study abroad each year, with Italy—another country highly affected by COVID-19—being the second most popular destination.
Nevertheless, schools are taking measures.
The University of Texas at San Antonio, for example, requires such students to self-isolate away from the campus for 14 days, during which they receive a per diem to cover daily meals and incidental costs, and then, assuming no symptoms, are welcomed back to campus and provided with on-campus housing and a meal plan for the remainder of the spring semester at no cost.
In New York, students from the various State University of New York (SUNY) campuses who were studying in Italy, South Korea and Japan—countries tagged by the U.S. State Department with Level 2 or 3 travel alerts/warnings—were urged to return and either self-isolate for 14 days at home or in one of three designated SUNY campuses with the facilities, services, technology, clinical and general staffing capabilities to accommodate New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) precautionary quarantine guidelines.
One of these is Stony Brook Southampton, where 22 asymptomatic students returning from these countries are being housed in isolated residence halls while being monitored for coronavirus symptoms. Each has their own room equipped with a dedicated refrigerator and microwave, and food service is delivered to each following SUNY/NYSDOH guidance on food delivery procedures.
With both a university and a hospital, Stony Brook University has to cover a number of contingencies and has been implementing all NYSDOH as well as CDC recommendations on best-in-class food safety practices to prevent the transmission of any flu-like illnesses, including COVID-19, by keeping facilities clean and disinfected, enforcing employee handwashing and requiring sick employees to not report to work, says Van Sullivan, executive director of the Faculty Student Association.
Additionally, “our dining staff has tripled their supply of serving utensils to be able to ensure that they are changed hourly at all self-serve food bars or buffets. The dining locations also are equipped with free-standing hand sanitizer units at every entrance, and we have also purchased a large supply of individual hand sanitizers that are distributed to all staff and customers.”
Meanwhile, on the East (medical) campus, the Stony Brook University Hospital foodservice team has placed hand sanitizers throughout the department that are replenished throughout the day by staff, and all ambassadors (employees feeding the patients) must sanitize in and out of each patient room. In addition, an increased supply of single-use disposable “isolation room trays” as well as single-use silverware and smallwares have been stocked “in case we have any patients that require this type of service,” Sullivan notes.
The department has also increased cleaning and sanitizing of patient tray delivery trucks, boosted the frequency of cleaning and dumping the high-temperature dish machine used for warewashing and contacted its vendors to verify any possible supply chain interruptions “so that we can quickly pivot to alternative items and sourcing if needed,” Sullivan explains.
Crisis implications now…and down the line
In the short term, while a brief disruption may cut into revenues for college and business dining operations, the ramifications of even a limited interruption of meal service in the K-12 sector has broader consequences because of the dependence on some children on the meals they receive in school.
To head that off, the School Nutrition Association last week asked the USDA to increase options for school districts to offer children meals at school or community sites during emergency school closures. Its specific requests included expanding eligibility for the Summer Food Service Program to be utilized for emergency feeding during unanticipated school closures and eliminating requirements that meals be consumed on site.
In a partial response, the USDA late last week approved a request from California to allow meal service during school closures to minimize potential exposure to the coronavirus. These meals are available at no cost to low-income children and are not required to be served in a group setting. The waiver is effective immediately and will continue through June 30, 2020.
But even if schools remain open, increased scrutiny is likely to be directed at things like self-serve bars—at least one district is already ending buffet-style meals in its cafeterias—and even bulk dispensers for items like milk, condiments and spices that invite touches from multiple customers.
While experts generally believe the COVID-19 crisis will eventually dissipate, for onsite dining programs, longer-term ramifications may linger in the way it affects customer and client attitudes going forward. For example, there have already been some indications that the forced experience of taking classes online or working from home may get students and employees comfortable with the idea. Online classes and telecommuting have already been growing trends that affect onsite meal sales in schools and businesses, and anything that encourages the trend further isn’t exactly beneficial for in-house dining departments in such venues.
Currently, the onsite dining segments most affected by the coronavirus are the airline and convention/conference catering areas. Airlines are seeing a definite decline in business that one prominent executive has already compared to the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks while the number of major conferences canceling, postponing or thinking of cancelling/postponing their events is accelerating, with high-profile tech developer conferences from sponsors like Facebook, Google and perhaps Microsoft and Apple either defaulting to virtual events or being put off indefinitely.
That doesn’t count the perhaps thousands of much smaller meetings and conferences that are also being affected, and the potential long-term danger for caterers is that this experience could make some clients more open to teleconference alternatives going forward after being forced into it this time and finding it workable.
Meanwhile, there is growing buzz about what to do about large public events. So far, political gatherings have not been affected as President Trump and Democratic challengers Sen. Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden all recently announced their intentions to continue to hold rallies. In fact, Sanders and Biden are planning rallies this week in northern Ohio where three confirmed COVID-19 cases were recently identified.
In the sports world, the NHL’s San Jose Sharks may become the first major professional team to play a game in an empty arena following a ban by local authorities on crowds of more than a thousand. Meanwhile, the NBA has put out feelers about possibly holding games with no spectators and it’s an issue Major League Baseball may have to address with the regular season scheduled to start in late March. Before that, college basketball moves into its “March Madness” postseason tournament phase, which annually draws big crowds—and big revenues for arena concessionaires.