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Proper Cafeteria Sanitation Is A Must for Going Back-To-School During an Outbreak

Across the nation, and the world, one big question is on the minds of nearly every community:  will our schools and universities re-open while COVID-19 is still a threat?  If your community has answered 'yes' to that question, and you're responsible for overseeing the cafeteria in a school, you suddenly have a lot more responsibility to handle.

Proper sanitation must be emphasized at all times if you are to prevent your cafeteria from becoming ground zero for new infections.  This includes the kitchen, of course, but must ultimately encompass every part of the cafeteria.  It's vital to provide as safe a dining experience as possible.

In this guide, we'll discuss best practices for maintaining sanitary conditions in a school cafeteria, as well as the tools and cleaning supplies that will help accomplish this.

 I. Understanding How COVID-19 Spreads                             

Research into the transmission of COVID-19 is ongoing, but there is general agreement among researchers and government agencies like the CDC that the main vector of transmission is person-to-person.  COVID-19 seems to spread most effectively through either direct contact, or through respiratory droplets caused by people coughing, sneezing, or even just breathing.

This is the core motivation for the "six-foot social distancing" practices that have been in place since early into the outbreak.  A person will be at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 when they're within a few feet of an infected person.

By comparison, the risk of person-to-surface-to-person transmission seems to be lower, but it's definitely still a risk factor.  Surfaces that are frequently touched need to be sanitized just as frequently.  This will be of particular concern in a cafeteria, since people's hands will have been in very close proximity to their mouth and nose while eating, potentially increasing the amount of viral load on their hands.

Finally, it's important to remember that a person can be infected with COVID-19 and capable of transmitting the disease for up to three weeks before symptoms manifest.  This is why strict precautions must be taken at all times.  Anyone might be infected without realizing it, and unknowingly spreading the disease as they go about their day.

II.  The Importance of Hand Sanitizer Dispensers

The single most important tool in the fight against COVID-19 is probably alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  Simply put, there's no such thing as too much hand sanitizer or too many hand sanitizer dispensers.

You should, if at all possible, be using automatic hand sanitizer dispensers, which automatically spritz alcohol fluid whenever someone's hand is put underneath.  These battery-operated hand sanitizer dispensers will run for days, if not weeks, on a single set of batteries.  This allows them to keep people's hands clean reliably, with very little need for oversight beyond watching the battery power and fluid levels.

These should be placed, at a minimum, at every entrance and exit, with big prominent signs reminding passers-by to sanitize their hands both coming and going.  If you have the budget, it would be even better to set up dispensers at the end of every table, to further encourage cleanliness.

For schools with younger students, it may be necessary to station adults nearby to ensure all students properly sanitize their hands before and after meals.  Younger or unruly students cannot be allowed to "cheat" this, or every other sanitary measure you take will be compromised.

In these cases, you may also want to consult with your school's principal and have a special session talking about the importance of hand sanitizer and showing how to properly use the automatic hand sanitizer dispensers.  

III.  Masks and Social Distancing

Face masks are another vital part of preventing the spread of COVID-19.   To be clear: masks are not primarily worn to protect the wearer, although they do offer some small protection against infection.  Masks are worn to protect others.  Since COVID-19 is spread primarily through respiratory droplets, masks act as a barrier to prevent someone's infected saliva or mucus from entering the local atmosphere.

If possible, stock up on basic disposable surgical-style masks.  These can generally be purchased in bulk for a dollar per mask or less.  Put boxes of masks near your automatic hand sanitizer dispensers and encourage people to get a mask if they aren't already wearing one.  If money is an issue, consider a collectiondonation box nearby that people can toss a dollar into whenever they take a mask.

We're aware that mask-wearing has become a political issue, but it really shouldn't be.  The plain fact is, mask-wearing saves lives.  Don't let a few malcontents put everyone at risk.  Make face masks available throughout your cafeteria, encourage their use before and after dining, and make it mandatory if you have the authority to do so.

Another useful tool here are social distancing mats.  These are simply printed mats which are placed on the floor, indicating where it's safe to queue, and showing people where to stand as they wait their turn.  These should, if at all possible, be placed six feet apart for maximum effectiveness.  If space considerations make this impossible, place them no closer together than three feet - but even that will considerably reduce their effectiveness.

Again, for smaller children, it may be necessary to have minders available to enforce the use of these mats.

 IV.  Staying Safe Behind the Counter

When it comes to protecting your kitchen staff, the good news is that the same basic sanitary techniques already practiced will be helpful in preventing the spread of COVID-19.  Of course, it is vital that your staff follow proper procedures, and utilize hand sanitizer or antibacterial soap regularly.

Depending on your kitchen setup, it may be a good idea to install additional pedestal sinks, or even utilize portable hand sinks which can be moved around as needed.  Should you have any plans to provide food outside of the cafeteria, such as lunches on a lawn or at a school function, portable hand sinks are a must.

If these can be automated with touchless features, or include automatic hand sanitizer or soap dispensers, all the better.  Adding these portable sinks to your cafeteria, to supplement the hand sanitizer dispensers, would also be a good idea.

Or, if utilizing too many hands-free features would be a budget problem, you could utilize knee valves to trigger the sinks.  A clothed knee is going to be far less likely to carry COVID-19 than someone's hands, so this makes an acceptable substitute.  However, knee valves should be kept strictly behind the counter.  They aren't placed well for students to use, and students would be tempted to play with them.

The other must-have item for protecting your staff would be an appropriate number of stand-up sneeze guards.  These simple plastic or acrylic dividers go in between people running the counter or the cash register, and the students receiving their food.  This will substantially reduce the chances of airborne transmission when people are receiving their food.  For cashiers, make sure to buy sneeze guards that have a cutout for passing money across.

In a pinch, you could DIY a sneeze guard by stretching clear clingwrap between two anchored poles and wrapping it around several times to form a barrier.  However, these will be prone to puncture, and visibility will be significantly reduced.

Keep Yourself and Your Students Safe in Dangerous Times

While all these upgrades may sound pricey, you will probably get a lot of use out of them.  COVID-19 is showing no signs of going away, and reports are that it's even possible for people to become re-infected.  "Herd immunity" will be slow to develop or may not even be possible.  The sad reality is that we are probably looking at years of increased health and safety measures until some form of COVID-19 vaccine is developed and standardized.

Until then, just do what you can to protect the people in your cafeteria.

Zanduco Restaurant Equipment & Supplies

Zanduco Restaurant Equipment & Supplies carries a full range of safety equipment, specifically designed to protect students and staff from disease.  Please contact us to inquire into bulk purchases, or if you have any questions about recommended equipment.