Saying No to Norovirus

Last month, a local restaurant was in the news as suspected of having a Norovirus Outbreak. The restaurant had a great response, which included shutting down for a few days – over the weekend to boot, discarding all foods on the premise, and cleaning of all surfaces in the restaurant, front and back of house. They shut down voluntarily and did not get a red placard from the Department of health. But the cost of the discarded foods, loss of business for the restaurant and staff while closed has gotta sting.

What is Norovirus? It is a very contagious virus that causes gastrointestinal illness. It is the most common cause of food illness in the US, and it can even be fatal – usually, over 700 deaths in the US are caused by Norovirus annually. Odds are that most people have had this virus, also known as the stomach bug or flu among others, at least once. Norovirus is usually the culprit when you hear on the news that loads of passengers on a cruise ship got ill.

What are the symptoms? Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and pain. Fever, chills, headache, and fatigue can also show up. Symptoms typically start 1-2 days after exposure and last a couple of days. However, young children, elderly and people with compromised immune systems may need hospitalization. After the symptoms have cleared up, your body still may spread the virus for a few more days. This is one tough illness!!

How does it spread? By touching a contaminated surface such as a door handle or cellphone, then touching your mouth nose or eyes, not following proper hand washing procedures, by eating contaminated food, or even from the air when an infected person sneezes, vomits or flushes a toilet.

How to prevent it? Not washing hands after using the toilet is probably the biggest way it is spread. I am sure (I hope) that everyone reading this washes their hands properly. We have all noticed when other people do not wash their hands when they are done in a public restroom – Ewww! Constantly review with your staff the proper way to wash hands, including when they return to their work area or touch any parts of hair or exposed skin.

Over 65% of Norovirus is caused by infected food workers. Overlooked prevention is your restaurant’s illness policy. Do you have a policy? It should include an outline for when your staff should call out sick and rules for excluding employees from working for 48 hours after symptoms have cleared up. Back in the ’80s, I worked for a Chef that told me I was fired if I did not come in. I was terrified of losing my job, so I went in. Thankfully, the sous chef didn’t even let me in the kitchen and sent me home. Review your illness and exclusion policies.

Purchasing foods from reputable suppliers, wash fruits and vegetables, proper cooking and holding are good practices you should be following anyway.

Sanitizing the tabletop is important as well. Make sure your staff is using a sanitizer solution to wipe down the entire table, edges and seat arms before resetting a table. How often are your menus wiped down? How about your condiments? How often are they cleaned? Cloth table cloths should be changed after each diner.

Now that you know more about Norovirus, share this information with your staff so your whole team can work to all say No to Norovirus.

The Hawaii Department of Health has information on Norovirus, including cleanup procedures from a vomit or diarrhea event, on their website.

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