COVID-19 is the hammer nailing those last nails into the coffin lid of hotel buffets as we know them. Some destinations have already outlined how hotels plan to revamp how they serve food to the masses.
Not before time.
I don’t dislike hotel buffets, I rather enjoy them. I get a guilty pleasure out of creating anarchic combinations on my plate; matching ingredients that wouldn’t normally look the road the others were on. No, I don’t dislike buffets, but I slightly fear them. They worry me at certain times of the year because they can be like disease-ridden minefields. Spending a week frequenting some hotel buffets in winter sun destinations in January is akin to taking part in The Hungry Games. Each time we enter the buffet battlefield to pile mismatched food onto our plates, the statistical likelihood of picking up something other than food increases to an extent hotel dining rooms should have signs on their doors ironically proclaiming ‘may the odds be forever in your favour.’
It’s not normally the fault of hotels, many do their best to counter the actions of the real culprits… guests, especially those who possess the hygienic habits of the average swamp monster. We stay in 40 to 50 hotels each year (ranging from rural to resort, budget to boutique, luxury to low-end) and witness an exceptional amount of buffet misdemeanours.
For my liking there’s too much of a probability other people will touch things which could end up in my mouth, and too many folk don’t wash their hands after a visit to the loo. Where’s my statistical evidence for that statement? I don’t have any. What I have as evidence is years of visiting loos in public places in various destinations and noticing how many men bypass the sinks after completing whatever bodily function they’ve been performing. So there’s always that queasy thought in the back of the mind whenever I stand in line to scoop chips over an anorexic fillet of pork straddling a soggy piece of white fish.
You can spot the potential disease-spreaders relatively easily. It might be the man who isn’t used to getting food for himself. These are the ones who look like lost lambs as they suspiciously survey trays filled with ‘foreign food’; they prod at potatoes, sniff sauces, and generally dither around the buffet tables whilst they struggle to identify anything that looks familiar enough to warrant a place on their plate. They’re often persistent touchers who seem blind to the existence of the implements that exist to keep their grubby hands away from the food.
Then there’s the woman with the sniffy nose who keeps her used tissue tucked into the sleeve of her tee-shirt, until the tissue falls out and adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a tray of watery ragout.
Or it might be the little girl wearing matching chocolate ice cream lipstick and gloves who grabs a prawn tartlet because of its pretty colour and then immediately puts it back when she spots the prawn.
My anxiety levels shoot up in some types of hotels more than others. I don’t worry too much in small rural/boutique hotels where only breakfast is in buffet format and there’s a more personalised service than in large hotels. Plus, in small hotels I can observe the buffet etiquette displayed by all other guests; such as who’s guilty of prodding bread rolls with their fingers to test which are softest; or which guest removes the cloth covering freshly baked loaf to get a better grip when they carve slices. Once I clock who the hygiene-challenged are, I make sure I visit the bread basket before they get their hands on it. It’s possible to implement a damage limitation strategy when it comes to buffets in small hotels.
Luxury hotels aren’t usually too much of a worry either. Their buffets often involve lots of individually ‘packaged’ dishes – pretty little containers holding tasty-looking concoctions. Additionally, pasta, meat, fish dishes are regularly made to order, removing the requirement to share much-fondled utensils.
The hotels which are most likely to have me aghast at buffet behavioural patterns tend to be the mid-range, resort variety. These I generally don’t like anyway; there can be something both claustrophobic and feral about the whole dining process – from guests queuing impatiently at the entrance to hotel dining rooms, like a flock of cattle waiting for the farmer to bring them their feed, to the inevitable bunfight that takes place when the doors are finally thrown open. There’s often too many people sharing too small a space, with hundreds of guests handling the same tongs, forks, and spoons.
It’s in these sort of hotels I’ve witnessed the worst offenders, and in these sort of hotels where, on more than one occasion, we’ve checked out with the cold, or even the flu.
We know it’s a risk we run when we negotiate hotel buffets during cold and flu season, and yet we still regularly enter the fray because, well, that’s part of the price we might have to pay for having a holiday. It’s just something we’ve come to meekly accept.
But why should we? Why should anyone’s health suffer thanks to someone else’s irresponsible hygiene habits.
Who really knows yet whether COVID-19 is the mass killer it’s made out to be in the media, but it is clearly a virus to be taken seriously. But then so is seasonal influenza which is a contributor to up to 650,000 deaths a year (source: WHO fact sheet), yet when it comes to seasonal flu we’re blasé; it’s almost as if a certain amount of people are expendable. COVID-19 may be the villain of the piece at the moment, but maybe it’s woken us from our complacent comas and shone a spotlight on practices which are overdue a rethink. Irrespective of whatever name scientists apply to a virus, and without being overly hysterical about prevention measures, taking steps to improve hygiene and reduce the chances of infecting others, especially those most vulnerable, is simple common sense.
Which is why I won’t mourn the death of large buffets as we know them.