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Ongoing health and safety protocols and vaccine rollouts were among the topics discussed on the weekly industry call hosted by the Airport Restaurant & Retail Association (ARRA).

Dr. Stephen Williams, director of the Houston Health Department and Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the city of Houston, gave a government perspective on the road to recovery while Laura Fitzrandolph, executive vice president and chief human resources officer for HMSHost, shared experiences from a business perspective.

Williams outlined the current coronavirus related health statistics in Houston and described the city’s plan for administering vaccines. Currently, supplies are limited. “Everyone is working hard, but it will be a few months before a vaccine is widely available to the general public.”

Fitzrandolph described HMSHost’s efforts in the early days of the pandemic, devising health check protocols for employees, sanitation standards and seeking masks in the early days of limited availability. “As of today, we have yet to have a report a case of anyone who who caught the virus from another person at work,” she said. “And we credit that to this intense focus that we’ve had on safety.”

HMSHost also encouraged employees to practice safety-conscious behaviors outside the workplace, because some front-line workers were uncomfortable with working alongside individuals who weren’t following social distancing guidelines in their daily lives. “We an education campaign to try to help people to understand that, you know, just because we asked them to wear a mask in our business doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be also wearing a mask all the time when they’re out in public,” Fitzrandolph said, adding that it “was definitely a big hill to climb.”

Fitzrandolph also noted that while some employees who had been furloughed are eager to return to work when recalled, others are more reluctant, often due to issues such as underlying health conditions or family responsibilities.

Participants discussed the current requirements of testing negative for COVID-19 before entering or re-entering the United States, which call moderator Andy Weddig said might make sense from a public health perspective but “compounds the air travel industry devastation.”

Persse noted the burden to the travel industry but said the action was appropriate in preventing the spread of virus variants. “I hope that in the long run people will feel more comfortable traveling than without this layer of defense,” he said.

While passengers are evolving, those involved in running businesses in airports are seeking clarity on vaccination protocols for their employees.

“We certainly expected our associates and all airport associates to be considered either frontline essential workers or other essential workers” Fitzrandolph said, saying she initially expected the company’s workers would be treated the same as airline crews, TSA agents and baggage handlers.

But each state has its own, unique approach.  “We were certainly very hopeful that we would be very early on in the vaccine hierarchy,” she noted. “And I think we still will be, but it is certainly varying significantly by state.”

Some airports are getting involved. Fitzrandolph said that Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and Denver International Airport (DEN) are among airports planning onsite vaccination clinics for airport workers.

On a city-wide scale, Williams described the education efforts underway in Houston. He noted a particular focus on ensuring diverse representatives of the population in Houston are vaccinated very publicly to help assure individuals that the vaccine is safe.

On a smaller scale, HMSHost is taking a similar approach within the organization by spotlighting the vaccinations of leaders within restaurant teams and trying to educate associates as much as possible. As of now, HMSHost is not requiring that associates get the vaccine. She noted the suggestion, led by United Airlines, of making vaccines a requirement for aviation employees but said HMSHost “is just not prepared to make a decision on it at this time.”