Keeping bar staff safe during the coronavirus pandemic

Even as Colorado's bars begin to reopen, the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. 

And, while Colorado’s COVID-19 infection case numbers are less concerning than many other states’, the virus still presents a tough challenge for bar owners and restaurateurs: How to keep staff, as well as guests, safe.

Colorado’s reopening guidelines cover a lot of bases, including:  

  • minimizing staff interactions
  • reducing customer numbers 
  • ensuring a six-foot social distance space between tables 
  • regular, rigorous sanitization

These guidelines are a good start, but there remains plenty of room for business owners to interpret and apply the rules.

Making a plan to keep bar staff and customers healthy and safe 

Denver bar owner and co-founder of the Colorado Bartenders' Guild Sean Kenyon argues health and safety should be a top priority when reviewing the guidance:

 “If you don't have procedures in place, and you don't have a plan to protect everyone, if you don't have an emergency plan for if somebody thinks they have COVID, don't open," he says. “This is not a 'winging it' situation."

The exact safety measurements and procedures employed will vary from bar to bar. 

Kenyon, a former American Bartender of the Year, opted against taking reservations to preserve the neighborhood feel of his establishment, Occidental Bar. Instead, his bar has moved exclusively to providing table service to reduce customer flow, control social distancing and promote a culture of safety for both workers and patrons. 

Although there is no standing service, he has added Plexiglass screens to the bartop to take his workers’ safety to the next level. Bar drinks now flow exclusively via the well.

Masks are a must for Kenyon — for customers as well as staff — not only when guests are moving around the bar, but also when the server approaches the table. 

Kenyon recommends creating humorous signage in line with the style and brand of your bar to communicate the rules in a friendly way. He also notes that treating masks with a hard line similar to misconduct and disorderly drunkenness is smart business for Colorado bars:

“People have followed the 'no shirt, no shoes, no service' rule for years," he says. “We're just adding another piece of clothing to that, which is a mask."

Safety culture: Service Adaptations Help Reduce Contamination Risks

An evolved bar operation workflow is essential to reduce COVID-19 contamination risks. 

At Occidental Bar, Kenyon has pivoted the bar’s workflow by: 

  • using  food runners to bring dishes from the kitchen to a patron-free, sanitized table where servers can pick them up
  • requiring staff to use new gloves each time they clear a table 
  • reducing the number of staff behind the bar

Ensuring speed of service with reduced team numbers and social distancing may mean simplifying and adapting both food and drink bar menus. 

“We've never really batched drinks before, but now we've added a little bit just for speed of service," Kenyon says. “We've had to cut down the number of steps on a lot of cocktails."

The menu itself? A QR code taped to the table leads to an online menu, also written on chalkboards around the bar, with single-use paper menus available for anyone who prefers that solution.

Maintaining worker safety and social distancing before, during and after the shift is essential, even when PPE and masks are worn. 

“Staff are not allowed to stand closer than six feet to each other when they're idle," Kenyon says. Manager meetings for Kenyon's three bars continue to happen over Zoom, while Slack remains a central method of communication.

Particularly given the risks of asymptomatic transmission, taking precautions against possible COVID-19 exposure is key. Kenyon and his staff get tested every Monday, when the bars are closed, to minimize the risk of at-work transmission.

Advice: Be Present, Reflect Often, Stay Flexible

For Kenyon, staying fluid during these challenging times is essential: 

“At the end of our shift, we all sit down, we talk about what went well, what the challenges were, and if there are policies we need to change we enact them by the next day.”

Most importantly, being present is key for even the most hands-off bar owner. 

“My advice to operators is at this point you need to be on site 100 percent of the time," Kenyon says. “Pre-COVID, I was on the road 70 percent of the time, doing education and events and things like that, and I was there when I could be there. But now, to make sure we maintain our integrity and our culture and our safety, I'm there 100 percent of the time."

Need help creating a safe culture and customer experience for your bar? 

We’ve got you covered. Pinnacol is now offering free virtual safety consultations for all Colorado businesses. Get started by connecting with one of our safety experts below. 

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