Physical distancing a challenge in the tight confines of commercial kitchens, workers say

The Manitoba government has strict rules for restaurants to follow when it comes to protecting customers and cleaning the area, but physical distancing rules aren't set in stone in such tight quarters.

Local restaurants work to try and keep employees 2 metres apart in close quarters

Food vendor Edmond Madriaga wears a mask and gloves while working in the shared space at Food Trip Kitchen in Winnipeg. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Working in a commercial kitchen looks a bit different these days than it used to for Edmond Madriaga.

The Winnipeg food business owner is constantly changing gloves and washing his hands between tasks. He's disinfecting work stations every hour. And he keeps a mask on, while staying in his red box, outlined on the floor.

"We put markings on the floor just so we know that we are staying six feet apart from each other," he said.

"Most kitchens, you have to work close together, and trying to stay six feet apart from each other is a struggle. But we're trying to get through it as best we can."

Restaurants, like other businesses, have strict rules to follow now, as part of efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

In Manitoba, many of those rules focus on things like cleaning procedures or how the businesses can — and can't — interact with their customers.

But physical distancing rules aren't always easy to follow — or always clearly defined — in tight quarters like kitchens.

Vendors working at Food Trip Kitchen practise physical distancing by staying in red boxes marked on the floor. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Madriaga, who usually operates his Fishball King food stand at Winnipeg festivals, and two other food vendors are working out of a shared kitchen space in Winnipeg's St. James area called Food Trip Kitchen.

The business just started Saturday, offering a more permanent space to vendors who normally only work at festivals and markets.

"The original intention was really to help as many small businesses or vendors as we can," said Food Trip owner Lourdes Federis. "But because [of] physical distancing, we just started with three vendors."

Federis said she's been working with her health inspectors to ensure everything is safe in the kitchen.

All staff wear gloves and masks, and she screens them for symptoms before they start working. She even ordered a digital thermometer to check their temperatures.

Lourdes Federis owns Food Trip Kitchen in Winnipeg's St. James neighbourhood. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Winnipeg ice cream shop Sargent Sundae, meanwhile, is getting creative with its small space. Employees now work on an assembly line — everyone has one job to reduce the amount of contact they have with each other.

"We keep it to a minimum," said Lynn Dusessoy, owner of Sargent Sundae. "It is spacious, and our hands are constantly in the water, washing everything."

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the most important way to keep restaurant employees safe is for ill workers to stay home. Other than that, the recommendations go back to the basics, like regular and thorough hand-washing.

"Physical distancing is possible," Roussin said during a press conference on Wednesday. "It might not be possible 100 per cent of the time, but for the most part we should still be aware of the physical distancing and [the] necessity to do that."

A provincial spokesperson said there is no requirement for food handlers or servers to wear masks in Manitoba.

"Restaurant staff are encouraged to wash their hands frequently, practise physical distancing wherever possible with patrons and other staff and stay home if they are sick," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

'Now is not the time to be a wallflower'

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 832 says it is dealing with some concerns from some of the restaurant employees it represents, who are worried about their safety at work.

UFCW 832 president Jeff Traeger said one of the restaurants he deals with is pivoting, only bringing in one cook at a time to keep physical distancing rules.

But he acknowledges that some other restaurants — like fast food chain franchises, for example — might present tricky situations.

Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832, encourages restaurant workers to bring up safety concerns with bosses. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"You've got seven or eight people running in a circle around a very small area," Traeger said.

"I don't know how they would possibly be able to operate at that volume and still maintain a safe workplace for those people working there."

While physical distancing might not be possible in restaurants at all times, Traeger said employees should bring up any situation they're uncomfortable with to their boss and request a job hazard analysis.

"Now is not the time to be a wallflower and to be quiet and to just do everything that you're told without considering your own health and safety," said Traeger.

"Now is the time to hold these employers — any employer — to the test to say, 'You've got this to do this, or I'm not going to work for you. And that doesn't mean I lose my job. That means I'm going to have an intervention.'"

Physical distancing in tight quarters

1 year ago
Physical distancing a challenge in the tight confines of commercial kitchens, workers say. 2:44


Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email


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