Prepare or panic?

How restaurants and hospitality are dealing with COVID-19

Gabrielle Saulsbery//March 16, 2020

Prepare or panic?

How restaurants and hospitality are dealing with COVID-19

Gabrielle Saulsbery//March 16, 2020

A Jersey City restaurant.
A Jersey City restaurant.

Business at the Mahwah Bar & Grill hasn’t fallen off at all since news of the coronavirus started spreading in New Jersey.

Beyond his personal gratitude for it, owner Craig Kunisch says that’s only fitting: restaurants are some of the cleanest places you can be, according to Kunisch. In fact, he stressed that eating out is often cleaner than eating at home.

“At home, you don’t have three different cutting boards depending on what you’re cutting, you don’t have sanitizer buckets, you don’t have gloves on,” Kunisch said.

For Jeanne Cretella, owner of Landmark Hospitality, which runs several restaurants including Liberty House in Jersey City and the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, days at her restaurants have been the same as usual.

Jeanne Cretella, owner, Landmark Hospitality.

“We sent out several emails to all of our employees to make sure they are totally aware of this and follow standard operating procedures as normal, but fortunately for the restaurant industry, operating like this is something we do each and every day. It’s not as if we’re doing an about turn,” Cretella noted.

Her restaurants have added hand sanitizing stations at their entrances and throughout their floors for guests to use as they leave.

“[It’s about] the basics: hand washing, making sure all of the surfaces are cleaned and sanitized, not coming to work when you’re sick,” Cretella said. “It’s important at this point in time, just like it’s important for people who are sick to realize ‘maybe I shouldn’t be walking into a public place.’”

Unlike remote-access capable jobs, restaurants and hospitality jobs face a challenge of physical presence: there is no working from home if they’re sick.

But according to Ashley Conway, the former director of the Disease Surveillance and Response Division in Calvert County, Md., and an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, a “bright spot” is that last year, New Jersey became the 10th state to mandate accrual for paid sick leave, with both part-time and full-time employees accruing one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked up to 40 hours paid leave altogether.

“Since it caps out at 40 hours in a year, that’s probably not enough to cover the full course if they were to get the virus, but at least it’s something,” Conway said, noting “in New Jersey, we should consider ourselves lucky. But for those folks in the hospitality industry that are low wage earners that work from paycheck to paycheck, there’s no good news here, especially if their hours get cut because less people are going to restaurants and casinos.”

Her first piece of advice for restaurants and places of hospitality: don’t sweep it under the rug. Address the coronavirus with your employees.

“Just for them to know that the person that they work for is thinking about it is important,” Conway said. “You don’t have to know all the answers. In fact, public health officials don’t know all the answers, and if they’re smart, they say ‘I don’t know, but we’re working on it and as soon as I know, you’ll know.’”

For those employers that have some sort of disaster or crisis plan, now is the time to take it out and tweak it to this outbreak, she explained. For those that don’t have a plan, now is the time to take it out and get it done. Perhaps an employee isn’t sick, but their kids’ schools have been closed. The plan can include cross-training front-of-house and back-of-house people to plan for staff shortages, she suggested, or it could include loosening up their sick time policy. For front-of-house people, if they know they have a compromised immune system, they could adjust their position for the time being so that they’re less exposed to the public, Conway suggested.

“My experience in giving people bad news as a public health practitioner is that people have a pretty robust capacity to hear bad things, but they want to feel they’re hearing the truth, and that you’re being transparent with them. That kind of transparency is important,” Conway explained. “If you don’t have a trust relationship with your employees, now is the time to develop it.”

Craig Kunsich, Mahway Bar & Grill

Kunisch, who said he doesn’t see this as a bigger deal than last year’s flu, said he hasn’t had any employees thus far take off due to having the virus or caring for a family member who has it. “We’ll make adjustments if need be,” he said, echoing

Cretella’s plan to “cross that bridge when we get there.”

“We are faced with challenges each and every day. Someone has a fire in their home, someone is undergoing cancer treatments. There are so many things that happen within our businesses where it becomes a situation where you do what you have to and do what you can to help those team members get through those tough times,” Cretella said. “It’s just what we do in this industry.”

Not all restaurants have been so lucky as Kunisch’s and Cretella’s. Triumph Brewing Co. in Princeton had around 10 cancellations due to the virus, likely related to the university closing, said General Manager Jonathan Young. Triumph’s Red Bank location had two cancellations as of March 10, one of which being an event they special ordered items that wouldn’t typically land on their menu, Young explained. They would either have to donate the ingredients or toss them out, he explained.

In the hospitality sector, some hotels are also experiencing a loss in business. Bhavesh Patel, past chairman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and hotelier in New Jersey, said that his properties in the Philadelphia suburbs are losing $3,000 to $5,000 per on-demand night, when they would ordinarily get overflow from conferences in Philadelphia. Two conferences were just cancelled, he explained, which resulted in a loss of reservations.

Bhavesh Patel, past chairman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and hotelier in New Jersey.

“We’re also seeing a little bit of a decline in business travelers as well and cancellations as well, either because of work telling them not to travel or working from home. It’s too early to tell, but in the days to come, I think we’ll see a little bit more of a decline,” Patel said. “And some of our members bring tours from China, and that’s stopped.”

Patel said other members of the AAHOA are reflecting a similar experience. He said if the virus continues to spread, without a short-term business solution figured out yet, the federal or state government might need to gives hoteliers like himself a small business incentive.

“We’ll just have to work with banks, the government, the vendors…if push comes to shove, we’ll just extend our credit terms out,” Patel said.

On the other side of the food sector, supermarkets are preparing for the average consumers to walk through their doors for baskets of basics like toilet paper and Lysol, as apocalyptic photos of empty store shelves are going viral online. New Jersey supermarkets are seeing a steady uptick in sales on shelf stable items, baby food, toilet paper, cases of water, health products, sanitizers and non-perishables, New Jersey Food Council President Linda Doherty told NJBIZ.

Linda Doherty, president, New Jersey Food Council.

“We believe customers are stocking up in case their movement becomes limited and New Jersey residents are preparing more meals at home instead of eating out. New Jersey grocery stores are prepared for the higher volume either online or in-store sales, and do not anticipate supply chain issues even with the higher volume of demand,” she said.

According to a March 3 Grocery Dive report, online grocery sales have also increased. In the three days leading up to the report, Instacart’s sales growth rate was up tenfold. That’s to be expected “as social distancing becomes more prevalent,” Doherty said.

Conway believes people stocking up on shelf stable items are not panicking but being reasonable.

“They’re stocking up on groceries so that if they can’t go out, they’ll have food,” Conway said. “People will go through this period after they’ve been told bad news where they’re going to be very upset but that upsetness will dissipate and they’ll get used to it and then they can carry on.”

Of the photos of empty store shelves, Kunisch said, “Pictures of empty store shelves are going viral, but no one sent pictures around of the Mahwah Bar & Grill being packed on Saturday night at 7 o’clock.”

Of course, he doesn’t think his business is immune.

“There’s a lot of corporate offices in Mahwah, so if people are traveling less and coming to Mahwah for corporate lunches less, we have to watch that.”

Other public hospitality spaces are taking other levels of caution, like the Borgata in Atlantic City.

“We are proactively communicating with our employees on the guidance from the CDC regarding prevention,” an MGM representative said via email. “We have enhanced our cleaning protocols that include placing additional hand sanitizer dispensing stations in high-traffic areas, reinforcing proactive cleaning and increasing the frequency of disinfectant procedures. We continue to follow the CDC’s guidelines and are closely monitoring for updates.”

At the New Jersey Exposition Center in Edison, the Sugarloaf Craft Festival was reportedly as busy as ever, according to a representative who answered the phone. According to the representative, no events have thus far been canceled at the Exposition Center and they’ve seen no fall-off in attendance. They’ve taken the “normal precautions, hand sanitizer, wiping down things a little more often.”

New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. – AARON HOUSTON

A spokesperson for New Brunswick Performing Arts Center said that although they have received a few calls asking if they would continue having performances (the answer is yes), there has not been a dip in attendance.

A spokesperson for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, headquartered in Parsippany, told NJBIZ that hotels around the world are being directed to follow guidelines established by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their local health departments; and supplies have been sent to Wyndham hotels in China for distribution to workers, guests, and members of the community. Additionally, guests traveling to or from Greater China, South Korea or Italy with direct bookings for stays in any Wyndham hotel through March 31 will have their cancellation or change penalties waived, the spokesperson said.

Some smaller public spaces, like art studio GlassRoots in Newark, are cognizant of employee and student worries. The studio has modified its paid time off policies to mitigate loss of income for employees who miss work due to illness or to care for a family member with coronavirus, according to an email from Chief Executive Officer Barbara Heisler. Heisler also said the studio is applying liberal rescheduling terms for all classes, events, and activities to provide students and customers greater flexibility without incurring financial penalties.

According to Conway, who coordinated Calvert County, Md.’s Anthrax response in 2001 and took part in an initiative to enhance preparedness and response to disease outbreaks in cities nationwide, for employers, it’s important to make decisions from an ethical place during a crisis, whether on changing sick policies or modifying job requirements.

“I think that if employers do this, I think that they’ll come out ahead really. I think that employees will remember it and be grateful, and that engenders loyalty. If an employer behaves badly about this, let’s say someone has to self-quarantine and they get fired for this—which an employer can do, they can fire you for not coming to work—it’ll look very bad. All it takes is a few Twitter tweets. This is an opportunity to build goodwill and employer reputation.”