grace meat + three in the grove photo by meera nagarajan

St. Louis restaurants turn to air purity upgrades as a supplemental indoor dining safety measure

For the better part of the last year, St. Louis restaurants and diners have been looking outdoors for a safer approach to dining during the pandemic. With winter – and the end of patio season – looming, restaurants are turning their attention back indoors and looking to upgrade the effectiveness of their heating and cooling systems.

“Ventilation is a really important part of controlling the spread of the virus,” according to Fredrick Echols, acting director of the St. Louis Department of Health. “Improving ventilation has been a really huge part of the safety strategies of restaurants but also bigger venues like the St. Louis Symphony.”

The simple ways to improve airflow aren't wintertime-only strategies, and they're some of the things that public health officials have been preaching since restaurants first reopened with safety restrictions and guidelines. “Opening windows and doors, or at least keeping them cracked, is something recommended by the CDC,” Echols said. “And opening your windows and doors is easy and doesn't cost anything.” 

Some restaurants are taking an extra step beyond improving air flow and upgrading their air filtration, and they are looking in different directions for their safety solutions. At Wild Flower in the Central West End, owner Tracy Czarnec opted for a constantly running dining room air purifier alleged to reduce viral and bacterial contaminants in the air by 99.9%. 

During the shutdowns earlier this year, Wild Flower had completely renovated their space. Making it as safe as possible for diners was an obvious next step in that process. “You can do all of the pretty things in the space, but if people don't feel safe, then it doesn't really matter,” Czarnec said. They opted for a portable air purifier to be sure that it wouldn't rely on their HVAC system running at all times. She was immediately impressed by the unit. “After we got it up and running, even the next day, it was so interesting to me because we're in an old building, and I immediately noticed the crispness of the air and how fresh it smelled,” Czarnec said. “Once we started cooking, we could smell the cooking – but until then, there was just no odor whatsoever; it was very interesting for me.”

Rick Lewis, co-owner of Grace Meat + Three, worked with Meyer Heating and Cooling to upgrade their HVAC with an ultraviolet air purifier purported to kill 99.9% of coronavirus aerosols, the live virus particles floating in the air. As air cycles through the system, a bar of UV light kills the living virus, so that the virus isn't cycled throughout the restaurant. “It's not going to kill it on hard surfaces – that's still up to us – but this definitely helps make our employees and customers who come inside feel safer,” Lewis said. 

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) studied the effectiveness of UV disinfection and found that “killing rates of 90% or higher can be achieved,” but that the system's ability to get results depends on the air system it is working within. “Best results are obtained when UV-C is combined with proper air handling, which may require upgrading a facility's HVAC system,” Echols said. “My hope is that business owners will consult a specialist to evaluate their HVAC system.”

“I think doing an upgrade inside makes a lot more sense [than outside] because there's only so many months where you can even use an outside space,” Lewis said. “And in the grand scheme of your business and your safety, it really isn't that much money.” For St. Louis restaurants who have worked to adapt their dining rooms to operating restrictions, a significant HVAC upgrade would likely come on the heels of a series of other modifications, from partitions and QR code menus to sanitizing stations and new menu displays. “Through all of this, we've put in north of $10,000 toward making sure we have a safe place,” Lewis said.

The investment is all pointed toward making people feel more comfortable with the concept of going back out again. “It breaks my heart because we have this beautiful new restaurant, and people don't feel safe enough to go out,” Czarnec said. Investment from St. Louis restaurateurs doesn't start and stop with safety features. Restaurants are supplementing their dine-in service with special menus and options like carryout and delivery. “We're going all directions,” Lewis said. “We've got a walk-up window in addition to the indoor dining, and we're delivering to some zip codes. ... We want to make our food accessible to as many people as we possibly can, and we want to make it as safe as we possibly can.” 

Restaurants need our help. An easy way to get involved is to reach out to your local representatives and let them know you support the Restaurants Act and believe in the importance of protecting the restaurant industry.

Sponsored: Click here for more information on how to install an air purification system in your business or home. 

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