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Frequently Asked Questions about Coronavirus (COVID-19) for Institutional Food Service Operators

Frequently Asked Questions about Coronavirus (COVID-19) for Institutional Food Service Operators
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Serving in Communal or Congregate Settings

Stagger mealtimes to reduce indoor (and outdoor) seating capacity, and seating should be spaced with at least 6 feet of distance in between. Encourage diners to remain at least 6 feet apart in food service lines and at tables while eating, and wear masks over their nose and mouth between periods of eating and drinking. Provide a clean place for diners to store mask when eating (e.g., disposable paper bag).

Encourage diners to wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol before and after meals.

  • Encourage proper hand hygiene by providing handwashing stations or hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol in prominent locations for diners and staff.
    • Place hand hygiene stations in locations where diners can access them before eating and after discarding food.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and utensils with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered product on List Nexternal icon.

  • Establish a disinfection routine and train staff on proper cleaning timing and procedures to ensure safe and correct application of disinfectants.
    • Determine cleaning and disinfection frequency based on how frequently diners and workers touch surfaces. Consider increased frequency during peak business hours.
  • Develop a schedule for increased routine cleaning and disinfection.
    • Increase frequency of cleaning and disinfection of doorknobs and handles that are touched by diners and workers.
  • Clean and disinfect tables between use. Ensure the table is dry before diners sit down.
  • Ensure that cleaning or disinfecting product residues are not left on table surfaces. Some residues could cause allergic reactions or cause someone to ingest the chemicals.
  • Have a system in place to identify clean and dirty eating areas (e.g., red card for soiled and green card for clean).

Additional precautions include:

  • Prioritize outdoor serving areas and seating options, as much as possible.
  • Require staff to wear masks over their nose and mouth during their shift, including breaks.
  • Do not allow use of food and beverage utensils and containers brought in by diners (e.g., reusable bottles).
  • Improve ventilation systems.

  • Ensure that ventilation systems operate properly and provide acceptable indoor air quality for the current occupancy level for each space.
  • Increase ventilation using air from outside, using caution in highly polluted areas. When weather conditions allow, increase fresh outdoor air by opening windows and doors. Do not open windows and doors if doing so poses a safety or health risk to diners or employees (e.g., risk of falling or triggering asthma symptoms).
  • Consider ventilation system upgrades or improvements and other steps to increase the delivery of clean air and dilute potential contaminants. Consult with experienced heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) professionals when considering changes to HVAC systems and equipment. This may include some or all of the following activities:
    • Increase airflow to occupied spaces when possible.
    • Disable demand-controlled ventilation (DCV) controls that reduce air supply based on occupancy or temperature during occupied hours.
    • Open outdoor air dampers beyond minimum settings to reduce or eliminate HVAC air recirculation. In mild weather, this will not affect thermal comfort or humidity. However, this may be difficult to do in cold, hot, or humid weather.
    • Improve central air filtration to as high as possible without significantly diminishing design airflow.
      • Inspect filter housing and racks to ensure appropriate filter fit and check for ways to minimize filter bypass.
      • Check filters to ensure they are within service life and appropriately installed.
  • Consider running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for 2 hours before and after occupied times.
  • Decrease occupancy in areas where outdoor ventilation cannot be increased.

  • Set up multiple food pick-up and dirty drop-off points to facilitate social distancing. For settings with limited space, consider using tables or rolling kiosks to offer meals in a nearby area, such as a hallway.
  • Place plexiglass barriers at dining tables if diners cannot stay 6 feet apart.
  • Consider assigning staff to direct diners to prevent congregation in areas that can become easily crowded (e.g., entrances to service lines, dirty drop-off stations, self-service food and beverage stations).

State and local public health departments will determine whether it is safe to open self-service food and drink options. These determinations are typically made based on what is happening in the local community, including factors such as the community levels of COVID-19.

In general, CDC recommends avoiding any self-serve food or drink options, such as hot and cold food bars, salad or condiment bars, and beverage stations. Serve grab-and-go items or individually plated meals, instead.

  • For individually plated meals, identify one staff member per service station to serve food so that multiple staff are not handling serving utensils.
    • Ensure adequate supplies for staff to minimize sharing of high-touch materials (e.g., serving spoons) to the extent possible; otherwise, limit use of supplies and equipment to one group of workers at a time and clean and disinfect between use or as much as possible.

However, if self-serve stations are offered:

  • Require diners to wear a mask over the nose and mouth when serving themselves food.
  • Provide unpackaged food items behind a barrier and limit diners’ bare-hand contact with utensils and/or dispensers by providing deli/wax papers, disposable gloves, and/or disposable serving utensils that are thrown out after each diner uses them.
  • Provide handwashing stations or hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol and encourage use before and after use of self-service station.
  • Encourage diners and food workers to remain at least 6 feet apart in areas that can easily become crowded (e.g., standing in line, dirty dish return) and while eating, by providing physical guidance and visual cues, such as tape or graphics on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls.
  • Don’t allow diners to grab items from reach-in refrigeration units or cabinets. Instead, serve individual cartons, bottles, and/or condiment packets with meals that diners can pick up without opening a door.
  • Do not reuse or allow diners to share items (e.g., paper menus) that are difficult to clean, sanitize, or disinfect.
    • If shared objects (e.g., utensils, tongs) are used, replace at an increased frequency (e.g., every 15 minutes, between cohorts). Ensure shared objects are easy to clean.
  • Provide no-touch or foot-pedal trash receptacles.
  • Consider assigning staff to monitor service stations to observe diners’ behaviors and apply corrective actions to prevent potential contamination and encourage social distancing and hand hygiene. For example:
    • Discard food items if contaminated by diners (e.g., self-service utensil submerged in food; diner sneezes on food).

Yes, disposable food service items (e.g., utensils, dishes, napkins, tablecloths, trays) should be used. If disposable items are not feasible or desirable:

  • Provide adequate bins for dirty items and no-touch or foot-pedal trash receptacles so that diners can drop off or throw away used food service items (e.g., trays, dishes, utensils) without contaminating themselves.
  • Handle used or dirty non-disposable food service items with gloves. Employees should wash their hands after removing their gloves or after handling used food service items.
  • Wash, rinse, and sanitize used or dirty food contact surfaces with an EPA-registeredexternal icon food contact surface sanitizer. If a food-contact surface must be disinfected for a specific reason, such as a blood or bodily fluid cleanup, or deep cleaned because of likely contamination with the virus that causes COVID-19, use the following procedure: wash, rinse, disinfect according to the label instructions with a product registered for food contact surfaces, rinse, then sanitize with a food-contact surface sanitizer.
  • Change and launder linen items (e.g., napkins and tablecloths) after each diner’s use.

Delivering Food to People in Isolation or Quarantine

Note: This may apply to workers living in staff quarters or students living in dorms.

  • Require staff to wear a mask over their nose and mouth when delivering meals.
  • Avoid person-to-person contact using contact-free delivery methods—for example, leaving food outside of door and knocking to notify person who is in isolation or quarantine that meal has arrived. Staff should wash hands or use hand sanitizer and change gloves (if applicable) after delivering food.
  • Quarantined or isolated people should eat in their own room, separate from others.
  • Use disposable food service items (e.g., utensils, dishes, napkins, tablecloths). Provide trash bags for quarantined or isolated people.
  • Use gloves when removing garbage bags and disposing of trash. Wash hands after removing gloves or after handling used food service items.

For more information, please see:

Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility
Caring for Someone Sick at Home

Note: This may apply to patients in hospitals or residents in long-term care facilities.

  • Use disposable food service items (e.g., utensils, dishes, napkins, tablecloths).
    • If disposable items are not feasible or desirable, handle non-disposable food service items with gloves and ensure they are washed, rinsed, and sanitized to meet food safety requirements. People handling used or dirty food service items should clean their hands immediately after removing gloves.
  • Staff entering rooms with isolated or quarantined people to deliver food or pick up dirty items should follow infection control guidance and use personal protective equipment.
  • Quarantined or isolated people should eat in their own room, separate from others.

Procedures for When a Food Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19

Food service operators should follow protocols set by local and state health departments, which may vary depending on the amount of community spread of COVID-19 in a given area. These decisions will be based on public health risk of person-to-person spread—not based on food safety concerns. In addition, employ strategies listed under Preparing for Sick Employees from Considerations for Restaurants and Bar Operators: advising the infected employee about isolation, cleaning and disinfecting areas and tools they used, and notifying health officials and the employee’s close contacts.

Currently, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with spread of COVID-19.

Food service operators are required to follow personnel practices that protect against contamination of food, food contact surfaces, and packaging, and to maintain clean and sanitized kitchens and food contact surfaces. It is possible that the infected worker may have touched surfaces in the food environment, but if food service operations are maintaining the required jurisdictional food safety regulations, the potential for surface contamination should be low because any contamination would already have been eliminated. Studies have shown survival of coronavirus on surfaces for short periods of time. Because a person with COVID-19 can present without symptoms (asymptomatic) or not yet showing symptoms (pre-symptomatic), food service operators may consider, as an additional precaution, a more frequent cleaning and sanitation schedule for high-touch surfaces.

Additional Information for Food Service Operators

In addition to these FAQs, see Considerations for Restaurant and Bar Operators and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidanceexternal icon for retail food stores, restaurants, and food pick-up/delivery services. Also see CDC’s Food and COVID-19 web page and FDA’s Food Safety and COVID-19 websiteexternal icon.