Workers find extra stress at what was once a lunchtime sanctuary for friendly chatter with colleagues; here’s how to take a breather safely on the job during the pandemic
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Lunch breaks have become a drag for Jason Alfonso.
Due to the pandemic, the steel mill where he works in Pittsburg, Calif., has reduced the capacity of break rooms from six to two people, mandated wearing masks at all times and encouraged employees to spray down tables with a bleach mixture after they eat. Not the most relaxed place to take a break after spending hours in an indoor warehouse.
“Usually there’s only one person in there at a time. If there is someone else, we don’t sit together, definitely 6 feet apart. To me it’s the same as eating by myself,” he says. Mr. Alfonso, who has lost two family members to Covid-19, understands why the precautions are necessary.
At workplaces across the country, break rooms have been linked to the spread of Covid-19. They’re often small, indoor spaces where people let their guard down to socialize. Even those most careful about masks must remove them to scarf down lunch. That leaves workers vulnerable to a disease that’s primarily spread through close, person-to-person contact.
At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., over 900 staff members were infected with the coronavirus in November, says Laura Breeher, an occupational medicine specialist there who helps track the spread of the coronavirus among its staff and patients. Once Mayo’s contact tracers started looking into the high number of infections, they found work-related exposures mostly happening in break rooms and lunchrooms. (Community spread outside the hospital also played a role.)
At the Holyoke Medical Center in Holyoke, Mass., a cluster of 15 employees, including 10 who worked in the ER, came down with Covid-19 in mid-October, spokeswoman Rebecca MacGregor says. “We believe it was traced back to them eating together in a break room,” she says. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, said in a press conference this summer that the county’s contact tracers had also traced the spread of the virus in the Orlando area to workplace break rooms.
It’s a dynamic that’s at once blindingly obvious to people in these workplaces and somewhat hidden from the sight of millions of still-remote employees.
A Turkish study of nearly 200 health-care workers published in the October issue of the American Journal of Infection Control showed that spending more than 15 minutes in a break room with a hospital co-worker, unmasked, was a statistically significant risk factor for transmitting Covid-19. So was eating food at the same time as someone else at a distance of less than 1 meter, about 3.3 feet.
People tend to let down their guard among like-minded colleagues, says Clay Dunagan, chief clinical officer at BJC HealthCare in St. Louis.
“When the staff are together in a lunch room or break room, there’s a tendency to feel like you’re in a safe spot,” he says. “You’re with colleagues whom you believe are taking precautions, too. But just like the rest of the community, those people get sick when they’re outside the hospital.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now addresses break rooms directly in its employer guidelines for office buildings, last updated in October. The CDC recommends that offices physically separate employees in all areas of a building, including break rooms, use tape or decals on the floor for social distancing, stagger shifts and “replace high-touch communal items, such as coffee pots and bulk snacks, with alternatives such as prepackaged, single-serving items.”
For some workplaces, a large Covid outbreak has served as a wake-up call to address break room safety. This spring, the Smithfield pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., became the site of a massive outbreak that infected nearly 1,300 workers and killed four, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA fined Smithfield in September for failing to protect its employees. Smithfield says it is contesting the findings and calls them “not accurate in many regards.”
Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer of Smithfield, says via email that break rooms have been central to the company’s safety reforms.
“Break times have been staggered to reduce the number of people in break rooms,” she says. “Many spaces have been reconfigured so that employees can sit at least 6 feet away from each other and/or are separated by thousands of plexiglass barriers we have installed.” The company also purchased single-person desks to replace some communal seating arrangements.The water cooler instinct to unload workday frustrations and gossip in a group is deeply ingrained, especially in what are now very-high-stress workplaces like hospitals.
Andrea Nunnally, an operating room nurse in Bardstown, Ky., says the sudden clampdown on lunch breaks at her hospital in October was disruptive.
“All of a sudden, months into the pandemic, they took out most of the chairs, so now only three people can sit and have lunch 6 feet apart.” Breaks are now also strictly timed to 30 minutes. “It’s definitely made things a bit more difficult,” she says, adding that the moves make sense given how hard her area has been hit by Covid.
As the country braces for a post-Thanksgiving surge, break-room controls will likely have to stick around for a while longer. The best practices, says Ralph Gonzales, chief innovation officer for UCSF Health in San Francisco, are the same as for any other indoor space: masking as much as possible, staying 6 feet apart, ventilation, not crowding too many people into a space.
“But the next layer of mitigation, which may be less obvious, is that we’re really encouraging people to speak up,” he says. “It’s OK to ask somebody to put their mask on.”
NAVIGATING A PERILOUS BREAK ROOM
Use Eye Protection: Masks are a no-brainer and should be worn any time you’re not eating or drinking. But eye protection could also help, says Dr. Gonzales of UCSF, since eyes and tear ducts are another route for virus-carrying droplets. A face shield or goggles may feel silly at first, but the extra protection is worth it if you have to share a tightly enclosed space.
Stagger Your Break and Don’t Dawdle: Eat fast, ideally alone, and resist the temptation to multitask on your downtime, which could lead you to let your guard down.
Crack a Window: “Negative pressure ventilation is the gold standard,” says Dr. Dunagan in St. Louis. But any kind of ventilation or fresh air is good to have for indoor spaces, since the virus can sometimes spread through airborne transmission, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and ventilation can reduce the concentration of virus particles in an enclosed space.
Speak Up: “Social awareness” is a key part of improving the pandemic break room experience, Dr. Gonzales says. That means bringing up break-room safety concerns with your boss, manager or co-workers.
Go Outside: If the weather suits—and for many people reading this in December, it may not be for a while—take your lunch break outside and your water cooler chitchat to a walking meeting. And eating lunch in your car is always an option, if your break room seems dangerously lax.
Write to Krithika Varagur at firstname.lastname@example.org