Restaurants and Food Suppliers Face a New Pandemic Challenge

A new study carries implications for food retailers
A new study carries implications for food retailers

New research suggests that air conditioning could help spread the COVID-19 virus, a finding that could bring further difficulties to the hard-hit restaurant industry and its supply chain.

A research letter from the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases noted that an outbreak of the virus in Guangzhou, China, was likely spread by a restaurant’s air conditioner.

“Strong airflow from the air conditioner could have propagated droplets” from table to table, researchers found. “We conclude that in this outbreak, droplet transmission was prompted by air-conditioned ventilation. The key factor for infection was the direction of the airflow.”

While this may be an isolated incident in a small city in China, the implications of the study should be on the radar of any food retail executive looking to enhance sterilization in-store.

Researchers acknowledged that the study has “limitations,” such as the lack of “an experimental study simulating the airborne transmission route.”

Even so, these early findings could have serious implications for the restaurants industry and the food and other suppliers that serve it. As plans start to take shape about how to best reopen restaurants for inside dining, these findings – assuming that they hold up – could lead to more distancing between tables and requirements for better ventilation, according to one analysis of the research. “There will likely be caps on how long patrons can spend eating, restaurants will operate at lower capacity, air conditioning or heating may have to stay off, and employees might be advised to wear masks,” the analysis said.

The restaurant industry has absorbed what amounts to a body blow from the pandemic. “Since March 1, the industry has lost more than 3 million jobs and $25 billion in sales, and roughly 50% of restaurant operators anticipate having to lay off more people in April,” said the latest update from the National Restaurant Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

Restaurants and their food suppliers aren’t the only industry trying to finding new ways to safely deal with the pandemic. Food retailers continue to up their game as the COVID-19 outbreak keeps people at home and puts essential employees at risk. In recent days, the Kroger Co. has released what it calls a Blueprint for Businesses. The grocer's recommendations and lessons are designed to help the company and other businesses to protect workers, customers and communities. The blueprint provides a set of distinct, deliberate processes for several key sectors: Retail, Manufacturing, Distribution Centers/Supply Chain, Food Service/Restaurants and Office environments.

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