U of Houston Guidance to Hospitality Businesses Reopening

Free college knowledge!As Texas reopens to business, some of the sectors hardest hit are in the hospitality industry.Stephen Barth is professor of leadership and hospitality law at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.They offer the following Q & A to help advise businesses of the road ahead.

Hotels, restaurants and bars have been among the hardest hit sectors of the hospitality industry during the COVID-19 crisis. Now as the country continues to reopen, many challenges must be addressed at the local, state and federal levels, according to Stephen Barth, professor of leadership and hospitality law at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.

Barth’s hospitality expertise, combined with his legal experience as an attorney, has made him a pioneer in the industry. As founder of HospitalityLawyer.com, the annual Hospitality Law Conference and the Global Travel Risk Management Summit Series, he is uniquely positioned to discuss the crisis from a legal, safety and security perspective.

In the following Q&A, Barth addresses several important topics as the country continues to reopen:

What steps do hotels, restaurants and bars need to take to not only protect themselves legally, but also ensure the safety of patrons?  

It is important to keep in mind that hotels, restaurants, bars and other places of public accommodation are not the insurers of guest safety. However, they have a duty to exercise reasonable care in their operations.  Regarding the virus, businesses would comply with the law (local, state and federal) regarding reopening and operating post-opening, and to incorporate and practice the safety measures promulgated by reputable health experts, including employing recommended cleaning and sanitizing practices. They would also take steps to monitor the health of their employees and to train staff in legal and safety compliance. 

And as there are still questions about transmission, it would be prudent for all places of public accommodation to prohibit smoking and vaping anywhere on their premises (venue, parking area, waiting area, patios valet, etc.). Guests will return to businesses that they trust.

If someone goes to a restaurant or stays at a hotel and becomes infected with COVID-19, do you anticipate a rise in lawsuits claiming the establishment did not take appropriate measures to protect its customers or guests?

For those establishments that do not take reasonable steps to protect guests from the virus, then an uptick in litigation will likely follow. Tracking the transmission of the virus to a particular location will be challenging for plaintiffs. However, it will likely be easier to track it to a hotel than to a restaurant or bar, as hotels capture guest information.

Can businesses – even airlines – legally require customers to wear masks or face coverings when entering their establishment? And if so, how can they enforce it?

Yes, businesses have the right to establish policies and procedures for the safe and secure operation of their business. It is important to keep in mind that a business owes a duty of care not just to one individual customer but to all customers and employees. So, their decisions must be made in the best interest of all constituencies. 

If customers refuse to comply with the policies and procedures established for the general safety and welfare of all guests and employees, then the business has the right to refuse service. If the customer remains on the premises and continues to not comply, then they are no longer at the business for a legal purpose. Typically, the law finds that they have transitioned from a business invitee (there for a lawful purpose) to a trespasser. Law enforcement may have to be called. 

In addition to wearing masks, other examples of enforceable policies and procedures include keeping a distance of at least six feet apart while on the premises, no smoking or vaping on restaurant patios, putting away cell phones on planes at certain times, adhering to dress codes, etc. It is important for everyone to remember that where one’s civil rights ends, another’s begins.

Not everyone is comfortable with returning to the office just yet. What should employers do to keep their employees safe?

I think many employers and employees will embrace remote working in a much greater scope than they did before the virus. This will take some of the pressure off. But for the employees who will still need to work in a collective environment, then businesses will most likely need to survey their employees about their health and health practices, take temperatures prior to entry, require masks and social distancing, and encourage frequent hand washing and hand sanitizing, as well as reminding employees not to touch their face. They should also employ recommended cleaning and sanitizing practices.

When it comes to business travel, what legal responsibility does a business have for its employees who travel across state lines or even to other countries?

Businesses have a general duty of care to provide a safe work environment for all employees during the course and scope of employment – whether they are working at a physical plant, office, remotely from home or traveling for business.

photo courtesy of getty images

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