OutbreakCoronavirus, COVID-19 and Chicago

Restaurant Sanitation in the Age of COVID-19

By Melah Lofton and Alfonso Gonsalez |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Friday, May 8, 2020

The last 30 days has ushered in an unprecedented new way of life for people around the world. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, routine activities such as grocery shopping, working out and going to school or work have been altered for the foreseeable future.

And the restaurant industry is no exception. From the implementation of social distancing to wearing gloves and masks in public, the culture of eating out — and for the time being carryout — has changed drastically. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has strictly enforced the statewide stay-at-home order, which was initially ordered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on March 20. That means more than 7,300 registered Chicago restaurants have since closed their dining rooms to the public and have either closed entirely or are operating as takeout and delivery only.

Fernanda Lara, a Chicago Subway employee, said working now is different because it is only her and her manager there.

Emphasizing social distancing, she added, “Around two people in the restaurant at most are ever-present. We just wait for orders to come in and we make them and then continue to wait for more, an endless cycle.”

The increased attention to food sanitation comes at a time when many Chicago restaurants have performed poorly, according to an analysis of restaurant inspections on the City of Chicago Data Portal. The data showed that of the 7,300 establishments, more than 85 percent are categorized as risk 1 (high risk) for adversely affecting the public's health. The remaining 15 percent of locations make up the risk 2 (medium risk) and risk 3 (low risk) categories. 

The Chicago Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Destiny Rivera, a former Subway employee, recalled her University Village employer being categorized as risk 1 (high) during her time there. 

“They prioritized prep and stock work over cleaning, that was secondary,” Rivera said, “I felt I was the only one that made it (cleaning) a priority.”

When asked about the quality of cleaning done in the restaurant, Rivera described it as “really bad. It wasn’t thorough at all. The knives for cutting sandwiches would be dirty, the plates too.”

Lack of food safety and sanitation is an ever-present concern of many quarantined consumers counting on these establishments to follow safety protocols.

Subway currently has more physical locations than any other restaurant brand in the world, according to Forbes. The brand has thousands of registered locations within the U.S. and hundreds within the city of Chicago. Of the 4,053 total inspections across these locations, 4,022 times they were categorized as risk 1 (high). Subway’s corporate office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

According to the Food Code Rules of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Food Protection Program, establishment risk categorization is based on a number of factors. These include, but are not limited to, time/temperature control of food, the type of food preparation used, the presence of raw food and the type of population the establishment serves.

However, it does not state that cleanliness is one of the factors taken into account. The multitude of Subway restaurants categorized as risk 1 (high) is due to the type of food being handled in the establishment. The same goes for all restaurants throughout the city.

Applications such as UberEats, Doordash, and GrubHub provide delivery for anything from groceries, to household items to carryout food. These delivery applications have seen jumps in usage as people order more delivery and carryout during the pandemic.  

When asked about how customers will react when restaurant in-dining reopens, Lara said, “I think people will be cautious for sure...For restaurants, I think they will accommodate more to their customers and try to present the best face. I think they will try to show their customers why they should continue to support that business.” 

Food Protection Graphic

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