What Contact Tracing Means for Restaurants

Contact tracing is a vital tool in the fight against COVID-19. By continuing to embrace it as part of a package of efforts, restaurants can contribute to community public health protection.
By Jori Hamilton - 2.9.2021

Though the Covid-19 vaccine rollout has begun, it is unlikely that we’ll see a return to anything approaching normal before the spring. This means that restaurants have had to adopt methods that allow them to keep some form of operation while maintaining their responsibility to public health.

Among the sanitation standards and barriers to prevent aerosol transmission, contact tracing continues to be a necessary aspect of our commercial environment. This involves the collection of names, contact details, and dates and times of attendance. Retaining this data allows authorities to identify and engage with all those who may have been exposed when a member of the community contracts the virus. It’s an essential tool in mitigating further transmission.

However, it also has the potential to create additional issues for restaurants. We’re going to examine the positive and negative effects of gathering, storing, and using this type of information. What are restaurateurs’ responsibilities? Can it be useful beyond the strict public health protocols that it’s designed for?

Community Confidence

Adopting contact tracing methods as part of daily operations helps to make restaurants part of the larger efforts to combat COVID-19. It not only ensures public health officials can respond efficiently to infection, it has a deeper role in helping them to better understand the virus. The data provided helps to highlight where the origins of localized outbreaks are, and how spreading among the population occurs. By keeping engaged in tracing methods, restaurants are being proactive in serving their communities.

This reflects one of the elements that the general public is currently prioritizing. Diners have indicated that as we move forward, even beyond the risk of COVID-19, they want restaurants to demonstrate responsibility toward guests and the wider community. Alongside evident cleanliness and sanitation efforts, virtual waiting lists, and contact tracing all feature as protective measures that consumers are keen for restaurants to continue employing.

That said, using contact tracing to bolster community confidence in restaurants also means addressing the issues that surround the subject. Largely as a result of widespread misinformation — declared by the World Health Organization to be an infodemic due to its prevalence and harm  — there is still a significant element of reluctance for consumers to engage with these efforts. Moving forward, restaurants need to be training staff and providing materials that effectively communicate the importance of these efforts for the benefit of the local and national community. They also need to stand firm in insisting on compliance.

Security Responsibilities

A commitment to collecting contact tracing data comes with additional duties of care. Tracing procedures include holding personal information such as names, addresses, and contact details of all visitors and staff. This is privileged information, which can be abused when in the wrong hands. As it appears that COVID-19 will still be a presence for some time yet, restaurants must take their data storage responsibilities seriously.

Strengthening Passwords

Storing contact tracing information online is one of the most practical approaches, not to mention that it avoids sharing and sterilizing stationery at the restaurant. However, a breach of this data could leave customers vulnerable, and the restaurant’s reputation may be damaged. Ensure that access to records is secured using strong passwords, and preferably 2-factor authentication. Utilizing a password management platform like LastPass or Keeper can take care of the necessity to frequently change and update these, while also maintaining strong protocols.

Educating Staff

The breaches and malware infections that can put contact tracing data at risk from cybercriminals are most often introduced to the network by the actions of staff. Restaurants need to train their staff to recognize phishing attempts in company email systems and spoofed 2-factor authentication techniques. Ensure that they are using restaurant-owned devices rather than their own smartphone whenever they need to access records in the course of their duties. Make it clear what the potential consequences of breaches are for the restaurant and the people whose data has been leaked. Make cybersecurity a part of regular checklists, alongside cleaning and service procedures.

Stronger Business Practices

It’s often the case that introducing new practices can open us to other areas of business in which they can be useful. Contact tracing must maintain public health as the priority, and staff must ensure that any other purpose doesn’t dilute its effectiveness. However, restaurants face other challenges that the collection of customer data can help address.

One of the issues that many restaurants still face is customers who dine and dash. This not only affects restaurant profits, but servers are often left without the tips they rely on to make a living wage. It’s rarely wise to chase after diners who leave without paying, as this can put staff at unnecessary risk during a confrontation. However, the details collected for contact tracing can be passed onto the police to follow up on dashers to ensure they pay their bill and face any legal consequences. The necessity to give personal details may also act as a deterrent to those who — unlike the diners in a recent case in Scotland — might be smart enough to consider that giving their details will lead to them being located in the event of a crime.

Collecting customer details can also feed into restaurants’ marketing efforts. Staff can use collection procedures as a forum through which to invite customers to join loyalty programs or mailing lists. This can be an effective early engagement opportunity, which can lead to building closer relationships with guests and creating a dialogue that helps optimize menus and service standards. However, it’s important to remember not to simply use the data for this purpose without express permission from consumers. While there is no federal legal standard for data privacy in the U.S., ignoring responsibilities here can damage consumer trust.

Contact tracing is a vital tool in the fight against COVID-19. By continuing to embrace it as part of a package of efforts, restaurants can contribute to community public health protection. While staff and management need to commit to strict security procedures, there are also opportunities to use these procedures to address challenges and improve relationships with diners.

Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She has over 8 years of experience in the restaurant and fine dining industry and has worked at a number of well-known establishments over the years. Jori covers a wide range of subjects but because of her past industry experience, she takes a particular interest in covering topics related to restaurant productivity, FOH and BOH management, and restaurant technology. To learn more, you can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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