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Tips For Reopening Community Dining In Senior And Assisted Living Facilities

Dining should be a communal experience by its very nature. The social aspect of eating together is very important for maintaining mental health and quality of life, especially for seniors and those in assisted living facilities. The fear of fostering outbreaks o COVID-19 has led to a lot of assisted living and senior living facilities to close or restrict their dining areas.

Community dining areas in senior and assisted living facilities can resume operations during Phase 3 of the White House's guidelines for reopening. Each phase is subject to gating criteria that must be satisfied before states can reopen. These include a 14-day downward trend in influenza-like illnesses and COVID-like cases, a 14-day downward trend in documented COVID cases and positive tests, and the ability to treat all patients without crisis care and create a robust emergency testing protocol for high-risk healthcare workers.

To enter Phase 3, states must satisfy all of these criteria three times. As more areas enter phased reopening, many senior and assisted living facilities are eager to resume community dining. Here are some tips for doing so as safely as possible:


In some dining rooms, residents are required to check-in either manually, or by swiping an ID card. This can slow things down near entrances to dining areas, as people are forced to wait while others check-in. Some locations are circumventing this issue by creating reserved meal times for groups of seniors. There's no need to check-in individually, and it's easier to control the number of people in the dining area at any given time.


In most cases, it's a good idea to cut dining room occupancy down to a third, or even a quarter. For example, if a dining room usually seats 200 people, only 50 or so should dine at once. This makes it easier to maintain social distancing guidelines.


Keep diners seated safely apart by moving tables together to provide more space between individual seats, or consider setting up plexiglass table dividers. These are inexpensive, and effectively prevent droplets from spreading from resident to resident.


Even if your residents have impeccable social distancing skills, it won't help if the people who come in contact with everyone are spreading infection. Make sure all staff members are appropriately masked and gloved, and that they change masks and gloves between groups of diners.


Every surface that someone touches or breathes on can be contaminated with the novel coronavirus. Prevent diners from coming into contact with contaminated surfaces by having groups of diners sit in different areas from the group before, and use different (or disposable) menus and placemats.


Even if you're very careful to seat your residents at fresh seats and tables, it's a good idea to take a few moments to disinfect each area between groups of diners. Use a disinfectant that's safe for food surfaces and EPA rated to control the novel coronavirus, and follow the directions exactly.


Some residents may not feel comfortable sitting in a communal dining area, and that's okay. Providing more meal kits or ready-to-eat meal options not only helps them feel safe, but it also reduces the number of diners that need to be seated and cleaned up after. You may wish to create to-go options for breakfast or lunch in order to limit the number of meals that take place in the communal dining area. Providing dessert to go can help limit the amount of time that residents spend in the dining room and keep mealtime schedules running smoothly.


In this case, technology doesn't just mean new high-tech disinfection protocols, like UV-C lighting fixtures or antimicrobial air purifiers, but also remote communication tools. While it might seem tangential to reopening dining areas, remote communication serves a very similar purpose -- it allows residents to socialize and get mental stimulation, especially those who don't have access to a fully open communal dining area yet. Applications like Skype or Zoom let residents stay in contact with family and friends without the danger of infection. As these tool become more popular, there is likely to be an increased demand for high-speed internet and robust tech support.


Given what we know about managing isolation and quarantine, modern senior and assisted living facilities are likely to follow a more "village" campus-style plan. This allows them to mimic the feel of a regular neighborhood or, in urban areas, a high-rise apartment, which is beneficial for residents' quality of life. It also allows management to isolate different areas individually, allowing them to follow strict quarantine guidelines and care for sick residents without disrupting others.

Even if your area hasn't yet entered Phase 3 of phased reopening, it's time to come up with a plan. Right now, make sure staff are given proper PPE, minimize contact points, keep diners separated, and provide to-go options, and you'll be ready to open. In the future, embrace remote socialization tools and architectural plans that make quarantines and social distancing easier to manage. Your residents will be healthy and happy, and your facility will be able to weather whatever comes your way.

If you need help with your assisted living or senior living facility's dining areas or foodservice equipment, contact LaBel today for a free consultation. We can help you reopen your dining facilities safely with a wide variety of temporary or permanent alterations.


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