Encounters in Starbucks, a public space, during Covid-19 pandemic
Core observation: encounters in Starbucks
Date: one-day in April, 2020
Time: around 5~6pm
Location: Starbucks near National Taiwan University
I choose this Starbucks because it is closest to my place and I very often visit this one when I don’t go to school. This Starbucks is located in between Gongguan and Tai-Power Building MRT stations, and it’s very close to the National Taiwan University. Therefore, it is in a junction where many of the students and workers nearby would visit.
We all know people who visit Starbucks are coming for their well-known services, mostly fine coffee, some tea, other snacks, or light meals. But in this kind of public area, where all necessities were provided, literally “for free,” such as space, tables, couches, wooden chairs, “toilet,” cozy light, relaxing music, plugs for electricity, and the most important of all — “WIFI,” facilitate people to visit for business, study, or just hang-out.
Today I visited this Starbucks, and there were so many students, probably because it is the mid-term weeks for college students. Many of them came with several others to prepare for their assignment, homework, or exams. Some come alone to self-learn. Many read their books, wrote notes, reviewed course handouts, typed on their laptops, rehearsed presentation PowerPoint, with or without their ear-pod, grouped discussion, checked cellphones for information, or watched YouTube in their cellphone, greeted other friends or classmates also happened to be here.
Staff (all wearing masks for all time) over the counter, from seeing people entered, they greeted, no matter whether the people would approach the counter or not. Because some would just have walked in and looked for seats first, or doing something else. If they received a customer, they would ask what they would want, either it’s drinks or something to eat. Sometimes, they would kind to provide campaign information for today. If received an order, they would help the customer to make tailor-made their order, check the bill, using a personal container or not, for here or go (or food delivery pick-up: UberEat and FoodPanda), with any payment method they preferred. They also have their business App — Starbucks Reward®. Disposable recycling plastic bags are only available when asking and with an additional price. Plastic utensils (fork and knife), including straw, are no longer provided, but the paper-one. “Tissue,” sugar, and creamer, spatula, including coffee seasoning, are still available for free.
If Staff is not receiving a customer, they will do the clean-work, washing used tools for making drinks, refilling coffee beans, cleaning machines for heating bread or toasts, refill disinfection agent, auto-dispenser machine, or disinfection spread. They also recycle those thrown-away by customers asked to put their stray or trash in the wooden cabin (shelves). I think (I didn’t see it for this time of observation) they will also clean “the environment,” “seats and tables,” have been used by customers, and also the “toilet.” Sometimes, they would be asked to refill water (normal, warm, hot, or even cold) for the customer, either using their device or the given mugs. And now, they just refill a whole water bottle for people who need to refill by themselves. Most of the time, I think they do the refill work a lot for the toilet paper and tissue (napkins).
The overall atmosphere is peaceful and calm, either it’s among the Staff, or those customers staying in the store. But, sometimes, not for this time, the atmosphere is awkward when “some typical usual customers” visited.
My reflection is focused on the pandemic response, especially during this time of COVID-19 swiping around the world. Even though Taiwan is one of the places that also with confirmed cases, it is one of the few places that has been very lucky to contain the pandemic in a controllable state, not like other countries. I have reduced time to visit such a public place, and instead, I visited school more than Starbucks. However, in a way, by going to school, I also exposed myself to another kind of exposure, such as taking the MRT.
Here in the Starbucks, the first thing as I entered (but not for this time of visit), is that the customers did decrease. Today, I am not sure whether it is because of the weather or less report of confirmed cases recently, many students presented in the store. For my previous times of visit, I did found the customer flow is not like that in the past.
The first thing I noticed is on the entrance door. Several notices about services and management due to COVID-19. First of all, the adjustment of the business hour. As I could remember, the business hour starts from 7 am until 10 pm or 1030pm in the evening. It is shortened. In the second notice, it is written, they have newly arrange the seats and tables according to the pandemic guidance of keeping social distance, up to 1.5m. The reminder sign on the floor, specific for the queue in front of the counter (cashier) showing customers where to stand, and in between, the distance is around 1.5m. And from the pictures, we also could see the seats were arranged accordingly.
But, just like today, I am not sure whether it is because of the zero case report news or because the weather is better (with sunshine), a lot of people showing up in the store. Not to mention, several came in a group, and they did gather, talk, chat, and doing activities, but not following social distance code. They moved chairs to close to each other. Furthermore, not all of the customers in the store put on their masks. This is what surprises me the most. As for me, like a visitor to this Starbucks, I would wear a mask all the time, except shortly to get a sip of coffee. I would take off my mask temporarily because of the meal I ordered, but I would finish it as soon as possible, and put back my mask. However, for many of the customers, they didn’t abide that.
I would expect the Staff would remind those who didn’t follow social distance or wear a mask, especially when we are indoor. But, it seems the staffs leave most of the customers a lot of space for doing what they prefer. I also notice that, even though signs are sending the guidelines to follow at several places, or even provide a new-added auto-dispenser for disinfection, it was not told or remind that information giving out. For example, at the cashier, where the auto-dispenser located, after the customer’s ordering, supposed it is the best time for the Staff to remind — here’s the disinfection machine; please use it before you enjoy your food, such thing seems not in place as the work-flow.
Before I sit down, I usually prepare my spread bottle of 75% antiseptic alcohol. And, I would spread on the surface where I will use before I touch it with my bare hands. But, from those people around me, the best they did, was just use a tissue to wipe the table. I didn’t find, but I do expect to see is that the Staff would regularly, once in a while, to wipe the desks or chairs, with proper cleaning. From my thinking, if they would rather do it in front of me, it would better present they are not only saying but doing. Just like when they are receiving the customer, if they could remind customers about the hygiene policy in the store, especially during this time, it would make us feel safer to stay in the store, in such public place, where people come and go.
There are two things or two places I also worry about. It is the recycling place (where people return their used cups or plates, and trash) and the toilet. As we might all notice that Starbucks recently in Taiwan is becoming more and more popular, which feature of their most welcoming customer to take a visit. Like McDonald’s’, actually many of the people would use it as a place for toilet. I do worry about this loosen but welcoming deed, from the past, and especially during this kind of pandemic time. We will never know who will just come in and go to use the toilet, not to mention that the Staff didn’t regularly clean the toilet. As my observed, they mostly clean the toilet for two times in a day. And what the Staffs would do more is when people are asking them to replenish the toilet paper.
Even though, especially recently, the Starbucks shifted back to use disposable cups, as I would understand, to avoid contamination and save time for cleaning reusable utensils. But, I could see from the recycling place, it is not a bin at all, but a cabin or shelves, where people could just throw whatever they want to throw away, in the open drawers. I hardly could imagine when there is all the trash-filled in that several boxes, but seldom the Staff just came to move all the trash away. If disinfection or not, I am not sure. Hopefully, I would pray for that.
In a time of pandemic, as a coffee franchise, I think Starbucks has already out-pass many others. That is why I could see all those signs in place to remind people from reading to know they are following the guidance. However, there are still some flaws that I think could be better improved. Especially, when a store is proactively encouraging its customers to cooperate and together to fight with the infection disease. One thing I find to be greatly affect the feeling of being protective is to find out if the store or the staffs could perform their procedure just in front of me, or at least let people see it. For example, I once found one of the Staff (not for this time) wiping the table just next to me because the customer left. I notice this, and I sense the smell of bleach, which is good. I felt more comfortable and safe if I am the person that cares about the disinfection procedure. But, if I could not see it by myself or they do not state it to us, we are probably so passively receiving the services from the store and the Staff. In a way, during such time, a simple but more deed could deepen the connection and trust between the customers and the business, increase the commercial and social image.