Regulatory nightmare: Tough times for customers of Iloilo dining places

A well-endeared among seasoned politicians and corporate executives; a veteran and respected senior journalist in Iloilo media circle, Florence Hibionada made a quick post over her Facebook timeline with a set of photos that showed proof of lapses regarding sanitation protocols from a dining occasion at the Courtyard by Marriott Iloilo.

The complaint post was already taken down by Florence, as we commonly call her, after the Courtyard by Marriot Iloilo responded on the social media post with lightning speed. The crisis comms response averted a negative PR from going viral and it earned an admiration from Florence. She declared: “Customer Service as Public Service, redefined” in a follow through posting.

The event can now be described as a “water under the bridge” but I took extra interest on the issue (or nonissue for that matter), for I have a similar experience, if not an exactly the same thing, at the Courtyard by Marriott Iloilo few months back. Unlike Florence, I failed to make a post, but I wish to emphasize that the unfortunate-turned-praiseworthy PR case is not an isolated incident. Thanks to Florence for highlighting it.

To move forward, however, the upscale hotel brand is not alone. Similar lapses or failures in observing standard sanitation protocols and procedures is happening in almost all dining places in the city – big and small – and with some exceptions of course. These lapses like a neglected hand markings left at plastic or fiberglass table mounted barriers, water dirt tainted plates, dried-up water stains on spoons, forks and drinking glasses, and non-disinfected dining tables after every use is prevalent.

Old pre-pandemic practices have prevailed and most infection prevention and control protocols were merely an exercise of compliance considering the low-level disinfection procedure that they follow.

Dining is a regulation nightmare. After the major lockdown last year, a risk comms classmate abroad urged me to observe prevailing health and sanitation practices in order to understand the new regulation regime that is demanded by the pandemic on dining places.

“If we want to learn what is the predominant weakness of our health protocol system today, and how to improve it, then we must visit hotels and restos,” she said.

Hotels and restos are highly-controllable environment as such infection prevention and control can be applied efficiently. Most of these establishments have a standard operating procedure (SOP) through a manual which outline a detailed step-by-step process for workers to follow. Those who are aware of this SOP prefers to dine on a hotel café or restos to they know that it is safe and secure.

There is a resto at the Boardwalk beside Esplanade 1 with an excellent health procedure and a clean restroom that you can even sleep on. Yet there are plenty of cases regarding lapses to health protocols. Let me illustrate the usual scenario in a summary.

You go into a resto and approach a table that has been used by a customer ahead of you. The table is uncleaned and you request a waiter to clean the table. A person will clean it the old normal way, some uses a disinfection agent while others do not. They likewise does not disinfect the entire space that is about to be occupied. Cleaning a table is enough practice.

Table barriers? Plates and dining utensils? These items are all exposed and brought to you without a packing to convey that the utensils that you are about to use has underwent a sanitation preparation stage. If you have a disposable cleansing wipes, you better wipe it yourself so that you’ll feel extra secure.

In addition, you don’t see food servers disinfect their hands before serving you the food. And they serve numerous dining guests on neighboring tables that way. This is common even among restos who are believed to be high-end at the Iloilo Business Park.

Moreover, restrooms are not disinfected from each every other use. One can tell not only from an experience, but also by visually inspecting the CR facility before using it. Urine droppings on the urinal and on the floor – instances like this also applies to the Courtyard by Marriott Iloilo.

It is time to ask: Does the health office of the Iloilo City Government regularly examine the standard sanitation procedures being implemented by these establishments? Is this a regulatory duty of the Dept. of Health or by an accrediting agency like the Dept. of Tourism? If not, then they must exercise that responsibility for the permits and certificates that they issue to an establishment legitimizes procedures that are not observed.

Dysfunctional self-regulation. A regulatory nightmare is a by-product of a dysfunctional self-regulation system – an internal regulatory system that is determined by a hotel or a resto; by its management or by its owners; by its workers or by its workers unions; or by its associations or its accreditors.

The Coronavirus has been blamed by both government and private sector saying that the pandemic has overwhelmed its capacity to implement regulation policies that ensure public safety. But there is another layer of regulation and that is self-regulation.

Self-regulation is an internal culture of cleanliness in the workspace – a type of cleanliness that is second nature to a company engaged in food business. It is integrated in the system of operations so that it will be internalized by the personnel and institutionalized by them through a day-to-day implementation as part of quality service standard.

Lapses on sanitation as showed by markings on table barriers alone are physical evidence of poor self-regulation system. It reveals a violation on the sanitation and food safety standard operating procedure manual either of a hotel or a resto or guidelines by government.

An overlooked concept, self-regulation holds the key to rite of passage for dining places within the period of a pandemic transition. It gives them the ability to adapt, move forward, and survive under a regulatory regime overwhelmed by overlapping policies, incompetence, and other pandemic-imposed constraints.

The pandemic-era demands an insanely systematic application of cleanliness. Dining places needs to communicate a plethora of regulatory policy compliance to earn public trust, but mind you, these are not even enough to convince a cynical public. It needs to convey effective self-regulation practices for these are easily relatable to the public by way of consistent action to secure public confidence.

Poor health and sanitation standard = confidence deficit = low public trust. We know what are the implications of this equation to business and to a recuperating local economy. 

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