COVID-19 Mitigation Strategies in Wineries
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to address specific examples of essential operations in the winery production space of how one can operate under COVID-19 restrictions and better prepare for the harvest season using recommended mitigation practices. I will approach this by covering a topic, and then allowing you time to think about how that works for your operation. Over the two week interval between posts, you can implement a plan specific for the winery.
My hope is that most of these topics will get altered before the start of harvest. I understand many Southern state operations will likely start harvest before we get through all topics. Thus, I focused on production-oriented tasks first.
Some of the topics I plan to address are:
- Ordering supplies early in preparation for harvest.
- Bottling operations under COVID-19 restrictions and practices.
- Receiving raw ingredients (i.e., grapes, juice) and how to handle incoming material.
- Changing the workflow (movement of people) to enhance social distancing practices.
- Setting up for harvest operations and fermentation management.
- Wine tasting procedures for production staff.
- Movement in and out of the tasting room.
To help you keep track of potential mitigation strategies, I have developed a Winery Prep for COVID-19 Mitigation Strategies checklist. This is designed to summarize information, isolate key areas to focus on in the winery, and keep track of changes implemented.
Of course, during this time in which I address COVID-19 mitigation strategies, it is possible you may have questions specific to your operation. In this case, I encourage you to sign up for our monthly Darn Good Winemakers membership program ($35 per month) and attend the group-based Q&A Winemaking Advice Hour sessions where we can talk further. Or, schedule a one-on-one Mini-Consult session ($75 for a half-hour session) by reaching out to [email protected] (with the term “Mini-Consult” in the subject line).
Below, I am going to review some of the broad guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that addressed early challenges found in the meat and poultry industries. While the information is directed towards those industries, the guidance is applicable to all food and beverage operations. Over the next few weeks, while addressing specific scenarios, I will tend to cite back to this post that covers the fundamentals of COVID-19 mitigation strategies for a winemaking operation.
If you would like to watch two informative webinars specific on winery operations and COVID-19 mitigation strategies, I recommend:
- How are winemakers coping with COVID-19? Perspectives from the Enartis Global Community – hosted by Enartis USA
- Re”wining” the clock in a post-COVID world – hosted by Cornell and Virgina Tech Universities
How Can the Winery Prepare to Function Under COVID-19 Restrictions?
One key take away lesson associated with other manufacturing facilities is that even when COVID-19 mitigation practices are invoked, there is still the potential for COVID-19 to spread among employees. The reason for this is because the virus is spread through person-to-person contact and the virus can spread from a sick individual that shows no symptoms of having the disease (currently referred to as asymptomatic cases).
Mitigation strategies for food and beverage operations focus on three key components:
- Minimizing close contact with other people using social distancing practices.
- Increasing sanitation practices to reduce the risk of people picking up live virus from heavily touched surfaces. This is a risk factor because if a person touches their face after picking up virus, they can potentially become infected.
- Developing a plan for employees that test positive for COVID-19 and a plan for handling employees with potential exposure to COVID-19 positive individuals.
Similar to risk evaluations associated with FSMA, it is up to each winery to:
- Identify risks for COVID-19 spread in their facility.
- Create ways to address those risks using recommended guidance from federal, state, and local authorities.
- Implement mitigation practices within their facility.
Keep in mind that while your situation at the winery is unique in terms of how you can address COVID-19 mitigation strategies, the food and beverage industry as a whole currently faces ongoing challenges associated with COVID-19 that have forced businesses of all sizes to alter production operations. It is possible to implement many of these procedures relatively quickly.
Below are a series of overarching themes associated with COVID-19 mitigation practices that in the coming weeks I will use in more detailed examples within a winery setting.
Implementing COVID-19 Mitigation Strategies Before Employees Become Sick
Winery employers can reduce their risk of COVID-19 spread among employees by first implementing mitigation strategies that have been recommended for other food manufacturing companies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided a lot of guidance for the meat industry, specifically, as they have faced series of challenges associated with COVID-19.
What part of this guidance is applicable to the wine industry?
Recommendations come down to these primary actions, which I will explore thoroughly, below. However, they are also summarized well in this one-page document from the CDC:
- Encourage social distancing.
- Encourage any sick employee to stay home.
- Increase the frequency of sanitizing (disinfecting) heavily touched surfaces.
- Make sure there is good ventilation in spaces used by employees.
- Encourage the use of facial masks and other protective equipment (e.g., protective eyewear) and educate employees on proper use of those supplies. Note: for some states, this is a requirement by employers. Please refer to your state and local guidance for details.
- Increase hand hygiene awareness and practices.
- Screen employees for potential signs of illness.
- Continue communication and training of how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workspace as more information is made available to employers.
Social Distancing at the Winery
While I will cover some specific examples throughout future posts, the information below is general guidance for wineries to begin brainstorming ways they can alter production operations and internal practices within the facility.
Minimizing Employee Numbers in a Workspace
Depending on your situation, it’s possible some employees may not be able to physically come to work for a number of reasons. They may be considered a high risk individual for severe infection associated with COVID-19, immune compromised and thus at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 infection, caring for someone immune compromised, responsible for managing the care of their children, or even provide a work function that allows them to work remotely. Under COVID-19 restrictions, wineries can improve social distancing practices by allowing those workers who can work from home to work from home. In fact, the CDC encourages workers who are not essential for on-premise work to continue to work from home.
With this in mind, wineries may implement new technologies (e.g., use of virtual meeting spaces like Zoom, or product development tools like Asana or Slack to communicate work tasks) that change the daily work life for the company. In a recent webinar hosted by Virginia Tech and Cornell Universities, it was recommended to implement these tools before the start of harvest and communicate ongoing discussions with how they can and should be used for work purposes within your company. Getting employees used to these new systems prior to harvest can help avoid chaos during the busy production season and improve employee communication efficiency during a time we are not all physically in contact.
Social Distancing at the Winery
For those employees that have to physically be at work, however, the encouragement of social distancing can look like a number of things:
- Find ways to keep 6 feet (~2 meters) of distance between employees at all time. This may include using floor tape to mark visual requirements for maintaining 6 feet of distance.
- Reduce employee capacity in spaces where people typically congregate. This includes breakrooms, bathrooms, halls, locker rooms, entrances and exits, and clock-in stations if they are provided. In places like breakrooms, this may include reducing the number of seats and tables in a space and implementing staggered breaks or lunches. Placing tables and chairs outside is helpful for breaks and lunch, but employees must still maintain a 6 foot distance from other people when sitting at tables.
- Reduce the number of employees in the workspace. This could include creating staggered shifts with an hour of buffer in between the shift change to avoid people overlap. This could also include rotating days in which employees are working (i.e., 3 days on, 3 days off).
- Changing the flow of the workspace so that people can only walk single file is a useful way to encourage social distancing. This is similar to the one-way, single file set up that was implemented in grocery stores, though the path may need to be slightly more creative at the winery. I will talk more about this over the next few weeks in relation to production operations.
- Discourage the use of carpooling for those employees that require it. If carpooling is a necessity, try to find ways to minimize the number of people that carpool in a given vehicle.
- Use physical barriers to separate employees in spaces that require employees to be close together. While this may seem like a large undertaking, there are a lot of creative options for this practice and wineries of every size have found ways to make this work, which I will cover in the weeks to come. One extra piece of guidance on physical barriers: make sure the material can get adequately cleaned and sanitized in between shifts or daily.
Sanitation: What to do
In the Winery
For wine production operations, routine sanitation procedures can and should remain the same if the winery operated under a rigorous cleaning and sanitation regime. Keep in mind that production sanitizers are meant to reduce the microbial content of equipment and operational surfaces (i.e., floors, walls) only.
It is possible that wineries should increase the frequency of winery sanitation. If the winery is operating under shifts, for example, then a cleaning and sanitation run should commence at the end of each shift. Employers and cellar management should detail a sanitation standard operating procedure (SSOP) for what these regular sanitation cycles should include. Furthermore, developing a log to record sanitation cycles is not a bad idea for record keeping purposes (and also contributes to FSMA compliance records). If you need a refresher on how to conduct a proper cleaning and sanitation cycle, you can refer to the webinar, “Winery Sanitation Steps that Work!” available to all DG Winemaking clients and Darn Good Winemakers members.
Otherwise, a sanitation run should commence at the close of each day in the area that was worked. If this sounds like spending more time on cleaning and sanitation than winemaking, that’s because it is. This is essentially a recommendation to reallocate time to more cleaning and sanitation in your daily operations.
Additional Sanitation of High-Touched Surfaces
In addition to routine winery sanitation, the consideration of heavily used materials and high-touched surfaces for regular sanitation throughout each day is also important. Materials and surfaces include:
- Winery tools that are not sanitized through routine sanitation procedures and touched frequently by multiple employees.
- Tables, chairs, etc. in breakrooms or rooms/places in which employees otherwise congregate.
- Door handles, knobs, and latches.
- Any additional surface or material routinely touched by multiple employees throughout the day.
Again, maintaining a log that cleaning and sanitation operations has been completed periodically throughout the day is recommended. Having the logs can provide some reassurance to employees that their safety is taken seriously.
In this situation, employers should defer to sanitizers or disinfectants that are effective against COVID-19. Many disinfectants recommended to sanitize for the virus include chlorine-based sanitizers, which wineries should continue to avoid due to potential TCA contamination in the wine. Wineries should also consider minimizing the use of aromatic disinfectants (those with additional odors) that could absorb into the wine. The EPA has a list of available sanitizers/disinfectants that may be applicable in food and beverage production facilities for heavily used surfaces. This list includes the active chemical(s), product brand name, which instructions for use to follow, and the minimum contact time to get proper sanitation (eliminate COVID-19 residue). Examples that may be appropriate include Caviwipes 1 (Quaternary Ammonium, Ethanol, Isopropyl), Clorox Commercial Solutions® Clorox® Disinfecting Spray (Quaternary Ammonium, Ethanol), and Lysol® Brand All Purpose Cleaner (Quaternary Ammonium) among others.
Hygiene and Facial Masks
Hand Washing Hygiene
One of the mitigation strategies focuses on an increased use of hand washing, again, to help minimize the potential of facial contamination of virus particles that are picked up on a surface. Employers should ensure adequate hand washing supplies are in stock, sinks are refilled regularly throughout the day, and that additional measures (such as supplying hand sanitizer) are available without a hand washing station.
It’s important to remember that employees may need reminders to wash their hands repeatedly throughout the day. Employers should, again, come up with SSOPs to describe the winery’s policies for when to wash hands in addition to the regularly mentioned moments (usually outlined within FSMA documentation). Increasing signage as both reminders and educational tools to remind people how to properly wash hands are appropriate. Training employees on proper hand washing techniques is also recommended, as most adults do not properly wash their hands. An example YouTube video that can be used for training can be found here. Two additional videos simulate how to disperse soap over your hands and how germs remain your hands when they are not washed properly.
At the time of this blog post, some state and local governments are requiring employers to provide facial cloth masks for employees.
The CDC provides guidance for cloth face masks and how those materials should be cleaned. It’s important to note that cloth facial masks are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) and that they should be used “in addition to social distancing” (CDC). In other words, the use of a cloth mask is not a replacement for social distancing practices noted above. To review more information on why this is important, I found this episode of Science Vs. nicely summarized the current scientific understanding of mask wearing (available in both written transcript and audio).
Employees likely need training on how to properly apply and remove masks without contaminating the mask. The WHO provides training guidance on this topic.
Employee Health Screening
One final optional measure that some businesses are taking are universal health screens among employees. This usually includes taking daily temperatures of each employee and potentially using a questionnaire to ensure employees are not showing symptoms associated with COVID-19 when entering the work facility. Employees that have a fever (defined at or above 100.4°F), are sent home. There is detailed information on employee health screening within the CDC recommendations for meat processors that explains how to handle this process.
While some recommendations have included managing a log of employee temperatures, there have been issues that have arisen because of maintaining health information that is easily identified to an employee. Please note that the management of a log is not coming from the CDC guidance. I advise wineries to not only review state and local recommendations for food production establishments, but to also check with their legal counsel and insurance agencies about best practices they can take during employee health screens.
Furthermore, it is at this step that wineries should create a plan to address sending employees home that have a fever. How many days must they stay home? Under what conditions can they return to work?
And, employers should start making plans for the potential positive COVID-19 case to appear. What next steps will be taken for employees that may have come in potential contact with that positive case? Under what conditions can an employee return to work after testing positive for COVID-19? Luckily, the CDC has provided guidance that companies can use to make decisions associated with these circumstances. Furthermore, OSHA has provided a detailed booklet of recommendations for these situations.
Again, consult your state and local authorities for more detailed guidance that may be required of employers during this time.
A Closing Reminder
This is certainly a challenging time.
While all the information above may seem overwhelming, expensive or impossible, I hope to provide some ease to those concerns over the next few weeks.
Stay tuned for some simple, affordable example solutions that can get integrated into winery spaces of all sizes. Until then, please remember to evaluate your current production space using the Winery Prep for COVID-19 Mitigation Checklist (available to all).