Let’s clear the air for hospitality

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Europe’s restaurants, bars and cafés are incredibly resilient, but many are now teetering on the brink of collapse in the face of repeated shutdowns, writes Ulrich Adam. [Shutterstock/Maksym Fesenko]

Europe’s restaurants, bars and cafés are incredibly resilient, but many are now teetering on the brink of collapse in the face of repeated shutdowns, writes Ulrich Adam.

Ulrich Adam is the director-general of spiritsEUROPE.

The number one priority as governments grapple with this pandemic must of course be the protection of public health. Thankfully, the latest evidence may now allow for a more sustainable reopening of the hospitality sector while also protecting people until a COVID-19 vaccine can be deployed.

That evidence increasingly points to airborne transmission of the virus. This means that, as well as essential protocols around social distancing, PPE, and hygiene, certain novel ‘engineering controls’ focused on improving ventilation could go a long way to ensuring the safety of hospitality patrons and staff.

While they cannot guarantee the complete removal of the virus, when layered on top of existing measures these controls can reduce its spread, and they are strongly ranked on the hierarchy of effective interventions.

Some of these measures are simple and intuitive. Increased outdoor seating and reduced capacity indoors are already the norm. Official guidelines for safety in schools and other indoor spaces recommend regularly opening windows to provide cross-ventilation, an approach which can be easily applied in hospitality outlets at no additional cost.

Many of those guidelines also suggest monitoring ventilation levels using widely available and inexpensive carbon dioxide (C02) detectors. Where simple ventilation is not possible, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are an option.

The regional government of Madrid is now considering the wide-scale deployment of CO2 detectors in indoor spaces as well as air purifiers in situations where natural ventilation is more challenging. This is encouraging.

We now know that speaking loudly, singing, and shouting can all increase airborne spread. Alongside capacity reductions and clear behavioural guidance for patrons, cost-effective modifications to acoustics and monitoring of audio systems can reduce ambient noise levels, thus reducing the need for loud conversation, and in turn reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Rolling out these engineering controls systematically means overcoming several challenges related to awareness, implementation, compliance and costs.

Public awareness campaigns have massively boosted levels of physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand washing. As the importance of airborne transmission becomes more apparent, these campaigns can easily be extended to highlight effective counter-measures.

Existing industry-led campaigns focused on responsible service among staff and responsible socialising among consumers should also adapt – we have already started this work and intend to continue.

Many of these controls are already being implemented in individual venues but we need them to be far more widely adopted. Our own members are using their partnerships with customers to explore these possibilities, and we are hopeful that successful pilot projects will soon bolster the case for these methods to be rolled out more widely.

On compliance, adding reviews of ventilation and related engineering controls to existing COVID-19 ‘safety charters’ and increasing spot checks should be easily doable, and would further strengthen the confidence of a public keen to get back to safe socialising.

Finally, there is the perennial question of who should cover the cost.  Tackling the COVID-19 crisis is a shared responsibility but the cost of these measures is not prohibitive.

Governments across Europe have already designated relief packages to support struggling outlets as they weather a second wave of closings and curfews. Diverting some of this funding into pilot projects and then long-term investments focused on these controls is likely to pay real dividends both in terms of lives and jobs saved.

We know that industry stands ready to play its part because the fact is that even with extended government support, the hospitality sector cannot survive indefinitely with the uncertainty of rolling shutdowns. What it needs are measures that are evidence-based, proportionate and practical.

Europe’s restaurants, bars and cafés are truly central to our economy and society. They provide flexible jobs to a largely younger workforce and have traditionally been a safety net during times of economic crisis.

Most importantly, these local institutions play a central role in our heritage, our culture and our sense of community. For all these reasons, we must help them to clear the air so they can once again open their doors.

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