COVID-19 ‘Roller Coaster’ – CA Hotel, F&B Trials

Posted July 10, 2020 at 11:50 am

Laundry operators in Northern California’s wine country, including Napa and Sonoma counties, recently have welcomed an upturn in hotel business, mainly from vacationers seeking to enjoy the weather and wineries that dot the landscape in that part of the state. However, a recent surge in COVID-19 cases statewide has triggered new restrictions, including closures of inside-dining establishments only weeks after reopening as the initial wave of coronavirus infections appeared to recede.

“A very recent change (today) is closures after recent reopenings,” said Phoebe Ellis, a part owner and office/human resources manager for Lace House Linen Supply Inc., Petaluma, CA, in an e-mail to Textile Services Weekly. “Many customers in Marin and Napa counties were allowed to reopen several weeks ago for indoor dining, and now due to the increase in COVID cases, the restaurants/bars have been asked to close again for indoor dining/operations.”

Lace House, a 105-year-old family laundry experienced a devastating drop in demand for its textile services due to the closures of hospitality and food-and-beverage outlets throughout the region. Ellis says the company is doing its best to stay afloat amid the renewed surge in COVID-19 infections.  “While we are being very flexible with customer orders, delivery days, credits – it is definitely challenging to manage all of the changes,” she said. “And we anticipate that more customers will be affected by imminent closures.”

So far, a recent increase in hotel bookings has helped buoy Lace House with the added benefit of additional changes of linens, pool towels and bar mops due to an enhanced emphasis on cleanliness. “It’s vacation people,” Ellis said in an interview conducted earlier this month before the latest round of F&B closures. “I think they’re changing sheets and towels more than ever and restaurants are using more bar mops than ever. People are really upping their orders.”

The spike in COVID-19 cases threatens to stymie that progress. As of July 7, state officials are reporting more than 289,000 cases statewide. The numbers are smaller in Sonoma and Napa counties with 1,519 and 453 cases reported, according to county records (click here for details). The increase in cases is making Lace House and its customers wary of the future. “It was so nice to finally see dirty laundry and full rails of clean linen for a couple of weeks, but here we go back on the roller coaster,” Ellis said. “We are not too confident that the ride will end any time soon! We are fortunate to be open for business and continue to service our customers, while monitoring our own employees’ health and safety.”

Before the pandemic broke in March, Lace House was operating seven days a week, with an extra half shift operating for five days. Business collapsed amid the initial shutdown, and Lace House dropped to two days a week with a core staff of 20 employees. The company recently had begun rehiring people with the help of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. Ellis hopes the company will qualify for “forgiveness” of that loan since the money is going mainly to cover payroll as the program requires for conversion to a grant. “We hired back a few drivers a month ago,” Ellis said. “Just when the restaurants started to open up and then hotels. We’ve probably hired back 10-15 employees in the last month. That’s encouraging.” Lace House currently is operating with a staff of 35 people.

Due to reduced production volume, the company so far hasn’t found it difficult to keep employees socially distanced. Even on ironers, employees remain six feet apart at all times. Lace House has issued a checklist of questions asking about symptoms and related issues that staff are asked to complete at home before coming to work. “We’ve had several trainings,” she said. “We’ve had the worker’s comp people out here. We are putting that on the employee to do it at home. We’ve given them a sheet, which includes a temperature check, and then when they arrive there’s a checklist at the time clock where they say, ‘I agree that I’ve done my daily check-in at home and I’m healthy to be at work today.’’’

Ellis adds that Lace House has adopted a flexible policy of encouraging anyone who doesn’t feel well to stay at home as long as needed. To keep up staff morale, Lace House holds weekly meetings to update employees on developments related to the business and the pandemic. Ellis credits this push for transparency with calming employees’ fears about the pandemic and the future of their jobs. “We’re still having weekly employee meetings just to update people on what’s going on and answering questions and trying to be as transparent as possible about the whole process,” Ellis said.

As the market in Northern California continues what until recently was regarded as a slow recovery from the pandemic, hotel customers have stayed open and busy (for now at least). But they’re taking a closer look at the processes Lace House is using to ensure that the textile goods they supply are hygienically clean. Ellis says Lace House has responded with both in-person and written communications about their efforts, including a drive to certify the company to TRSA’s Hygienically Clean standard, possibly as early as next month. “Mostly the hotels have inquired, how do we process our linen?” Ellis said. “What are our protocols? We explained to them that we partner with Ecolab, so they’ve given us a letter that we have given to several customers explaining the wash process. Then we did a ‘welcome back’ letter to all of our customers explaining the wash process, and how we handle it and transport (textiles). So, we’re trying to reassure customers that it’s as hygienically clean as possible. Then we have enlisted TRSA. We have signed up for the Hygienically Clean Hospitality Certification, so we’ve started that process as well. We just did our first round of testing and we passed with flying colors. That was exciting.”

While it helps to keep a positive outlook, Ellis is candid about the challenges that lie ahead. “I think people are definitely hesitant right now,” she said. “Leery. So, we’re just trying to be here and be supportive and super-flexible with our customers right now.” While there are no easy answers, business operators and their customers simply have to keep doing everything they can. “What’s the alternative?” Ellis adds. “We’ve tried to keep our heads up. My father (Dan Libarle, third-generation owner) is 78 and been in this business a long time; we’ll get through it. I have to believe that. You have to have faith, right?”