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Tulane med students helping businesses stay open safely during the pandemic

BRACE is still offering free consultations to businesses.

NEW ORLEANS — With glass of wine and good company, the courtyard at Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits can be a temporary escape from reality.

But for managing partner Joaquin Rodas, the reality is that it's been some heavy lifting.

"It's been a gradual learning process," Rodas said.

The learning process involves keeping the wine flowing, while putting COVID-19 on ice.

"In general, in the restaurant business, we do take a lot of responsibility in that we are stewards of your health to a large extent," Rodas said. "But a worldwide pandemic? Not so much."

Bacchanal, and about 20 other businesses in New Orleans, have found free, expert advice from Tulane University Medical School's Business Resilience and Community Education - or BRACE - program.

Stephanie Shea organizes the group of student volunteers who brainstorm ways to improve social distancing and infection control at businesses.

"These are the places that we would be frequenting on a Friday night, if we weren’t in a pandemic," she said.

Her advisor, Dr. Jonathan Gugel came up with the idea after a pandemic restaurant experience left him looking for ways to help.

"I just kind of noticed that things weren't working quite as well as they should. And I thought to myself, 'maybe we could kind of put together a group of people.'"

After starting with about six students, the group has grown. Students hold in-person consultations to discuss the best ways to avoid spreading Coronavirus and keep customers safe.

"You walk into a space and you really see, well how does this flow? how does the customer walk in the door? what do you do with the person? what do they do when they get the menu? do they have a menu? those types of things,” Dr. Gugel said.

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At Bacchanal, that includes one-way walkways, masks, removing half of the outdoor seating, and sanitation breaks. Employees have their temperature taken at the start of every shift, and are tested for COVID-19 every two weeks.

Starting Friday, businesses across New Orleans can take the BRACE Pledge. The pledge affirms that a place of business has been educated on best health and safety practices and is committed to a safe environment. The BRACE Pledge was the brainchild of Mark Schettler, the Executive Director of non-profit Shift Change. 

Shift Change wants businesses to be able to use the pledge as a marketing tool, adding their name and location to a map of other shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and the like that have taken the BRACE Pledge. 

The pledge is free and will help spotlight businesses who are doing the right thing.  

"We'll help anyone and everyone, that's committed to making their business safer. We've done a lot more than just bars and restaurants," said Shea.

The Brace For COVID19 Instagram page includes the group's visits to the New Orleans Children's Museum, Cavan Restaurant and Bar, Elysian Bar, Longway Tavern and International House Hotel.

At the end of a consultation, some businesses have been putting themselves to the ultimate test - inviting the BRACE group back to dine or drink and offer feedback.

Managers tell us that the walk-throughs with experts give staff the confidence that they're doing things right.

Rodas said, "Having reassurance helps a lot, with being confident coming into work, knowing that you're going to be safe. Knowing that you're keeping people safe."

BRACE is still offering free consultations to businesses. You can contact them at braceforcovid19@tulane.edu, follow on Instagram @braceforcovid19, or take the pledge on their website, braceforcovid19.com.

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