Over the past several years, there have been numerous norovirus outbreaks at hotel complexes, each sickening hundreds of guests.

Unfortunately, casino resorts have not been immune to this problem. Early in 2010, hundreds of guests were reported to have contracted norovirus at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, N.C.  In 2013, more than 100 people became ill with the highly contagious norovirus while attending a National Youth Football Championship tournament at the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The outbreak spread through that casino, and reached people who were staying at other hotels and casinos in the area as well.  Earlier this year, more than 200 people contracted norovirus at the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino in St. Maarten.

While the illness is bad enough, the damage to an organization’s reputation in the aftermath of an outbreak can also be terrible.  “This hotel is a norovirus breeding ground,” or “Norovirus had taken over the hotel!!! DO NOT STAY HERE” are not quotes any hotel or casino wants written online about their facility.  Customers frequently post their no-holds-barred thoughts on travel review sites, and if they became ill at a hotel or casino, they’re often very vocal about their unpleasant experiences.

A norovirus outbreak—combined with negative publicity and terrible word-of-mouth reviews—is a nightmare. How should a company deal with such negative backlash?  My best advice: don’t allow it to happen in the first place.

CAUSE & EFFECT

Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S.  Most of these outbreaks occur in food service establishments, including restaurants, hotels and casinos.  Outbreaks of norovirus are more common in the cooler winter months and can reach epidemic proportions quickly because the disease is highly contagious. It is particularly dangerous in close quarters, such as in hotels, cruise ships, schools and university dormitories, where it can be passed to others through casual contact.

Typically, we think of norovirus as being an illness that involves vomiting and diarrhea, and in most cases this is true. However, in some situations, the ramifications are much more severe. A norovirus infection can become quite serious in children, the elderly and immune-compromised individuals. Sometimes severe dehydration, malnutrition and even death can result from a norovirus infection.

Globally, it’s estimated that there are 685 million cases of norovirus each year, with 19 -21 million of those cases occurring in the U.S. 

Norovirus is a huge threat within the hospitality industry. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the majority of norovirus outbreaks occur in foodservice settings, and 70 percent of infected workers cause 70 percent of those outbreaks. Several studies over the past few years indicate that people go to work even when they are sick. Infected food workers often cause—and spread—norovirus outbreaks, typically because they’ve touched ready-to-eat foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, with their germ-infested bare hands before serving them. Or, they touch other items (cards, doorknobs, elevator buttons, etc.) and spread the disease to others through this contact.

Additionally, Norovirus outbreaks can occur from foods, such as oysters, fruits and vegetables that were contaminated at their source. It’s important to note that any raw or cooked food can get contaminated with norovirus.

Compounding the problem, norovirus can also be introduced from external factors. If just one guest arrives at your casino ill, they have the potential to infect thousands through poor personal hygiene. After using the restroom, a person’s contaminated hands may come in contact with slot machines, chips, playing cards, utensils at buffets, table tops, light switches, elevator buttons, ice buckets, door knobs, hotel keys and physical contact with other individuals—who may then get ill and continue to spread the disease, causing an outbreak. 

SOLUTION SET

Thankfully, there are some steps properties can take to combat norovirus and other illnesses. Viruses are usually smaller than bacteria making them more difficult to remove, but proper handwashing will reduce the risk of a norovirus outbreak. This places even more importance on handwashing techniques for your staff (and your guests).

The CDC and FDA have opposed the antiviral claims on hand sanitizer products due to concern around the physical presence of soil during some norovirus outbreaks.  For this reason, hand sanitizer should only be used as an additional precaution, just like wearing single use gloves. Employees should be instructed to properly wash their hands with soap and water at regular intervals, before touching food, after using the restroom, between glove changes, etc.

At Food Safety Training Solutions, we offer casino/hotel professionals these tips to avoid norovirus:

• Develop, implement, and monitor stringent handwashing policies for all employees.

• Wash your hands carefully and often with soap and water (100°F).

• Place handwashing signage in both public and team member restrooms.

• Use auto-dispensing paper towel dispensers in all restrooms.

• Do not work while you are symptomatic with diarrhea and/or vomiting.

• Avoid preparing food for others while you’re sick and for at least 48 hours after symptoms stop.

• Do not allow ill employees to work at all—and especially don’t allow them to work around food preparation areas.

• Enforce a strict “gloving” policy for all food preparation. Ensure that gloves are changed frequently and hands are washed before putting on gloves and in between changes.

• Rinse fruits and vegetables before preparing or serving.

• Cook shellfish thoroughly.

• Clean and sanitize kitchen utensils, counters and surfaces routinely.

• Wash table linens, napkins and other laundry thoroughly.

• Use disposable ice buckets and drink cups in all guest rooms, discarding between guests or when they show signs of visible contamination.

• Use disposable cleaning cloths, different colors for restrooms and a new set for each guest room.

• Use separate colored cleaning cloths in toilet area of restrooms.

• Keep virucidal chemicals on hand to clean and sanitize high-touch areas frequently.

• Prevent cross-contamination—i.e., don’t use the same dirty cloth to wipe the ice bucket that was used to clean the bathroom. Clean and sanitize cutting boards and utensils between prepping different foods.

• Create an ongoing training program for your team at all levels.

TRAIN & PROTECT

A well-trained management, staff and crew is imperative in creating a food safety culture.  These values must be established and modeled at the executive level. If the executives aren’t championing for food safety, it’s a major problem for that company. Ongoing training and education is vitally important to prevent norovirus—as well as other foodborne illnesses—and the terrible repercussions that occur after an outbreak. So is ensuring that all staff, in all roles within the organization, always follow proper food safety protocols.

Norovirus is especially dangerous for hotels and casinos because this disease spreads so rampantly. It’s not uncommon for hundreds (or more) individuals to get sick at a hotel or casino, making norovirus the high roller of foodborne illnesses. Ensure that your entire team is following proper food safety protocols, including regular hand washing, avoiding cross-contamination and staying home when ill.  Through these efforts, norovirus—and its damaging aftermath—can be avoided.