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Pandemic Dining 

Richmond hospitality professionals discuss the impacts of COVID-19.

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Editor's note: To contact our new food editor, Mary Scott Hardaway, with your stories and news updates, please email maryscotthfletcher@gmail.com.

Last week, local bars, restaurants, pop-ups, coffee shops and markets have taken to social media with one unified plea: Don’t forget about us.

Asian-American pop-up Kudzu posts: “Just a friendly reminder that Covid 19 will have a huge effect on the hospitality industry as a whole. Restaurants operate on very small margins and a significant drop in revenue will cause restaurants to go out of business and people to lose their jobs. Please continue to support your local restaurants and food service establishments!”

The spread of novel COVID-19 — a pneumonia of unknown origin first detected in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31 — has turned average people into isolated doomsday preppers. And hospitality industries around the country are preparing themselves for the weight of empty seats.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization, after assessing the outbreak “around the clock,” characterized the spread of this particular virus as a pandemic. The cancellations started rolling in: South by Southwest, the National Basketball Association, March Madness, Minor League Baseball and Shamrock the Block.

“We decided 10 days ago to cancel,” says the president of the Cultural Center of India, Poojaa Talwar. “It was not an easy decision.” The center’s annual Taste of India event — which was scheduled to take place March 21-22 and has been indefinitely postponed — usually draws in 5-8,000 people, Talwar says. “It’s one of our signature programs.” But she and the group’s board continued to revisit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and decided that the risk was far greater than the reward.

“There was some criticism,” Talwar says, especially because many felt the group was being overly cautious, canceling so far in advance. “We thought about the emcees holding mics, food being served is obviously part of the equation. … We looked at the smallest scale of events within this mega event,” Talwar says. “Knowing the situation, I think it was just in the best interest of the community.”

Yesterday, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, “Our top priority is to make sure Virginians stay safe and healthy, and that our response to this situation leaves no one behind,” he says.

As of this writing, there are 45 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, according to state officials.

Better safe than sorry is the adage that Ellwood Thompson Local Market is taking. Marketing director Colin Beirne says it’s working to “stay ahead of the curve.” There are ample surfaces to touch in the grocery, and Beirne says it is sanitizing all of them frequently, particularly the bathrooms and hot bar.

“We are making sure bathrooms are sanitized each hour on the hour with a manager signing off,” Beirne says. “We have a third party coming in roughly every other day to do a deep disinfectant of all bathrooms.” The market’s hot bar utensils are being switched out and sanitized every hour, and all door handles, carts and baskets are also being sanitized. All food demos have been suspended.

Beirne says his employees, called stewards at the market, are also being taken care of. “If they do get sick or have to work from home, we are asking ‘How do we best support them?’” Like in times of natural disasters such as hurricanes and snowstorms, Beirne notes that the store can and will operate with a fully supported skeleton crew.

In a statement regarding the novel virus, the president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, Eric Terry, says the group is, like most reasonable organizations around the globe, “closely monitoring” the situation. He also notes that “there are over 15,000 eating and drinking establishments in Virginia, employing over 378,000 people, or 9% of the state's workforce. VRLTA believes it is important to support these businesses and workers in this time of uncertainty.”

Food safety extension specialist and North Carolina State University professor Ben Chapman has been very busy during this uncertain time — and has gleaned more followers than most microbiologists can claim.

“When I do my webinars we usually have 100, 200 people tune in,” Chapman says. Earlier this week when he and members of the National Restaurant Association COVID-19 response team broadcast the informative webinar Preparing for the Coronavirus: Steps for Foodservice and Restaurant Readiness, Chapman estimates it had at least 12,000 viewers.

Chapman’s niche field has been brought to the fore — he works with both the food industry, “specifically restaurants and grocery stores and farmers markets” on food safety issues and conducts research on consumer food handling.

“The issue around COVID-19, it’s an interesting situation because it’s not really about food safety,” Chapman says. “Food has not been identified as a risk factor.”

But the practice of delivering, stocking, buying, cooking and serving food both at home and especially in public has led to “a lot of questions,” Chapman says. “The best way I’ve been able to capture this in my mind is it wasn’t really a food safety issue, and then it became a food safety issue.”

Luckily, the professor and podcast host (he talks about food safety twice a week, in fact, at foodsafetytalk.com, says “the thing that is fortunate in the food realm is, we are always worried about food-borne illnesses so that infrastructure is already in place.” You know those A ratings restaurants so proudly post in their front windows? They earn those ratings by sanitizing both front and back of house operations. Now they’re just doubling down.

“We value the health, safety, and welfare of our guests and our ZZCrew above all else,” write ZZQ owners Chris Fultz and Alex Graf on Instagram. The popular Texas-style barbecue joint just celebrated its second anniversary last weekend with free hot dogs, drink specials and giveaways. Now it’s celebrating — and practicing — caution.

“In order to aid in curbing the spread of the virus we are implementing the following precautionary measures to create a safe dining environment for our guests:

“We are practicing new sanitizing protocols every hour on the hour. … Due to the large number of guests that frequent ZZQ, we are asking that everyone in the queue stand a minimum of 3 feet apart from one another to combat spread of the virus.”

ZZQ joins numerous area restaurants in sharing every minute detail of their safety and cleaning measures. Can transparency translate to steady business? Perhaps.

If you’re feeling fever-free and ready to hit the town, first, proceed with caution — check the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health websites for the latest updates. Then, check your favorite restaurant’s social media page to make sure it’s open regular hours (ZZQ is limiting its hours starting Saturday March 14, for instance). If it’s up and running — tally ho!

For those concerned about being in public, there are other options to support your favorite local eating and drink establishments:

Order to-go. Even restaurants that don’t typically offer to-go options are getting creative in the time of coronavirus. Eat it Virginia co-host Robey Martin has started a highlights tab on her personal Instagram account, instagram.com/callmerobey/?hl=en, that tracks restaurants offering to-go and drive-thru options. The list includes Rappahannock, Brenner Pass, Lunch or Supper and Triple Crossing. Yes, you can get curbside can and crowler pickup, hop heads.

Delivery. Local food delivery service Chop Chop, chopchoprva.com, is also taking immediate action during the outbreak. “I think it’s just starting to hit home,” says Chop Chop’s president, Chris Chandler. “I think this week and next we’re going to start seeing people coming our way, as long as restaurants are open, we will deliver.” Chandler says starting this weekend it will also offer noncontact delivery. When customers include this request in the description box food will be dropped at the door instead of being passed between driver and customer. “If you wanted to completely isolate yourself in your house, you can do that.”

Buy gift cards. And use them when we’re no longer dining in the time of COVID-19.

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