What to know about the risks of restaurant takeout and delivery – and how to minimise them

Tim Carman

THE WASHINGTON POST – An estimated 75 per cent of Americans now live under stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus, which may be one big reason why we’re typing the following phrases into Google: “Is it safe to order food delivery?” And: “Is it safe to eat takeout during covid?” And countless variations of each.

Naturally, these queries can be answered from any number of perspectives: Are food delivery and takeout safe for the person ordering them? For the crew preparing the food? For the delivery drivers? None are easy to answer definitively, but there are ways customers and companies can reduce the risks.

ARE FOOD DELIVERY AND TAKEOUT SAFE FOR THE PERSON ORDERING?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been consistent on its messaging from the start of the outbreak: There’s no evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food. It is “generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets” from coughing or sneezing, the CDC notes. But what about the packaging? The public has been especially concerned about disease transmission via inanimate objects since the New England Journal of Medicine published a study in mid-March that said the coronavirus was detectable on cardboard, plastics and other materials for many hours, and even days, after it was applied to the surfaces.

Within days of the study, medical professionals were suggesting we take extra precautions to protect us from potentially harmful packages and containers we bring into the house. But recently in a Washington Post op-ed, an assistant professor of exposure and assessment science at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health Joseph G Allen provided some much-needed perspective:

“In the epidemiological world, we have a helpful way to think about it: the “Sufficient-Component Cause model”. Think of this model as pieces of a pie. For disease to happen, all of the pieces of the pie have to be there: sick driver, sneezing/coughing, viral particles transferred to the package, a very short time lapse before delivery, you touching the exact same spot on the package as the sneeze, you then touching your face or mouth before hand-washing.”

When you bring outside meals into the house, remove the food from the packaging and put it on clean dishware and use your own utensils. When finished, throw away the materials or thoroughly clean and recycle them. You should immediately wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and hot water before eating. You should also clean and disinfect surfaces where the packaging materials were placed. And don’t touch your face at any point.

In the months since the coronavirus outbreak began, more science emerged on how it spreads. One study suggested that the “digestive system other than the respiratory system may serve as an alternative route of infection,” which means that, theoretically, the virus could be transmitted via people who haven’t adequately washed their hands after using the bathroom.

“We can reasonably surmise that some transmissible virus happens from a stool, but we have no evidence to suggest that it is a major route of transmission,” said an associate professor of epidemiology at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, William Hanage.

What can you do to protect yourself from this potential route of transmission? Experts said the best way is to patronise only those restaurants you know and trust.

ARE FOOD DELIVERY AND TAKEOUT SAFE FOR THE CREW PREPARING AND PACKAGING ORDERS?

This is an almost impossible question to answer. Every restaurant is different: Some need only a few employees to operate, while some still have a full crew. Some have tight kitchens; some have spacious ones.

The best thing to do is to talk to the managers of your favourite restaurants and ask how they keep their employees safe. But do so politely, with real empathy.

As the National Restaurant Association points out, the industry already “follows strict local public health guidelines”. On top of municipal health codes, chefs and restaurant owners have doubled efforts to maintain healthy workplaces.

Despite the precautions and new measures, however, countless restaurants have still opted to close down entirely, because they couldn’t make enough money to keep the business afloat or because remaining open would put their employees (and their families) at risk. Or both.

IS FOOD DELIVERY SAFE FOR DRIVERS?

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act covers gig workers such as food delivery drivers, who are not considered employees of their particular companies. As The Post’s Heather Long reported, gig workers will get these sick leave benefits “in the form of a tax credit”.

But major delivery companies created assistance programmes that will cover up to two weeks of sick leave for qualified workers who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, placed in quarantine or asked to self-isolate. A DoorDash representative said the company’s programme would continue regardless of the federal tax credit. Some companies provide drivers with disinfectants, gloves, wipes and/or sanitisers.

Customers who order delivery meals should request the contactless option. It’s good for both customer and driver. The latter encounters dozens of people a day, and every door bell they ring could bring them face to face with an infected customer. But if you insist on meeting with the driver, wash your hands thoroughly first with soap and hot water for 20 seconds. Wear a mask, if you have one.

Put the driver at ease, and let them know you want to protect their health, too. And don’t forget to tip well.