Co-Authored By: Marbet Lewis, Partner
Jonathan Portuondo, Associate Attorney
The alcohol and hospitality industries are among some of the hardest hit by the 2020 pandemic. While there is light at the end of the tunnel, there are still many obstacles facing full reopening including ongoing social distancing requirements and how we can bring large workforces back together safely. Accordingly, businesses should be developing and adhering to reopening protocols that guide employees not only on required social distancing practices but also address more controversial issues such as Covid-19 testing requirements, use of paid time off (“PTO”) for illnesses or mandated quarantines that prevent an employee from performing the essential functions of their positions, or requiring qualified employees to be vaccinated. While vaccine distribution has been slow, concerns surrounding employer mandated vaccination are already making headlines.
To help facilitate reopening and a return to full capacity as allowed, we have put together a short general list of key areas for consideration in developing reopening plans starting with updating social distancing practices:
- Follow-up with local and state regulators for the most updated social distancing and curfew requirements;
- Review current operating licenses and permits including alcohol licenses to be sure all are current, renewed and in good standing. This should include review of any local and state tax accounts and reporting requirements that may have been abandoned during closure periods;
- While vaccination is underway, the use of masks for patrons and employees is still mandated in many jurisdictions;
- Post updated CDC signage in public locations including entrances, exits, restrooms and waiting areas;
- Employers should update applicable COVID-19 related illness and leave policies considering many of last year’s mandates expired in Dec. 2020;
- Review current legislative hospitality and alcohol industry relief efforts to confirm if your business may qualify for relief grants or whether you should intervene in supporting legislative causes;
- Consider new trends in menu development including the ongoing popularity of “cocktails-to-go” and DIY meal and drink prep kits;
- Re-visit third-party agreements. Delivery and convenience options are likely to remain a driving force behind consumer choices. However, many jurisdictions have now limited the fees third party companies can charge for these services;
- If you haven’t done so already, now may be the time to expand outdoors as many jurisdictions have now formalized their outdoor seating permitting and approval processes. As patrons venture back out into the real world and revive their interest in social experiences, operators may also want to consider expanded on-premise entertainment options that will attract new visitors;
- Lastly, employers need to re-examine employee Covid-19 policies all around including options for encouraging vaccination. Widespread vaccination is critical to helping the alcohol and hospitality industry get back on its feet, but can the case then be made that vaccine mandates in the alcohol and hospitality industry are justified because many of these industry jobs require coming into close contact with co-workers and patrons? While we wait on our respective legislative bodies to tackle these issues, employers need to consider the potential legal ramifications of aggressive vaccination policies. Accordingly, we highly recommend consulting with an experienced labor and employment lawyer to discuss any employee policies.
While reopening will certainly not be as easy as flipping a switch, the new normal also comes with new opportunity for innovation and modernizing current operations.