The Risks of Restaurant Takeout and Delivery – and How to Minimize Them

An estimated 75 percent of Americans are now living under stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus, which may be one big reason why we’re typing the following phrases into Google as fast as our malnourished fingers will allow it: “Is it safe to order food delivery?” And: “Is it safe to eat takeout during covid?” And countless variations of each.

People clearly want answers. Let’s get you some before you’re forced to binge-watch “Schitt’s Creek” with a cold can of baked beans.

Naturally, these queries can be answered from any number of perspectives: Are food delivery and takeout safe for the person ordering them? For the crews 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. Our foodstuffs may be safe, 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, extra precautions to protect us from potentially harmful packages and containers we bring into the house. But recently in a Washington Post op-ed, Joseph G. Allen, an assistant professor of exposure and assessment science at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 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.”

In terms of takeaway, you can replace “driver” with “person packing your meal.” Either way, when you bring outside meals into the house, you should remove the food from the bags/packaging/containers and put it on clean dishware (and use your own utensils). If you want, you can use gloves to open the packaging/containers. When finished, you should 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. (If you don’t have soap and hot water available, a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol will suffice.) You should also clean and disinfect all 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 has emerged on how it spreads. One study has 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,” says William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “My judgment would be that the role of this in transmission is dwarfed by the contribution that is made by people who don’t even realize they are infected yet.”

“People should just wash their hands regularly and, in particular, when they’re preparing food,” Hanage adds.

What can you do to protect yourself from this potential route of transmission? Experts say the best way is to patronize only those restaurants/takeaways that you know and trust. But you can also track down city and county health inspection reports. They’re widely available online, whether in Los Angeles, New York, Washington or other jurisdictions. But be cognizant that reports may be old and outdated or may feature violations that have already been remedied by restaurant operators.

Recently, a story out of Skagit County, Wash., raised fears that the coronavirus may be transmitted through the air without an infected person coughing or sneezing. To date, however, the World Health Organization is sticking to its warning that the coronavirus is primarily transmitted via droplets from coughing and sneezing, largely downplaying the transmission through smaller air droplets, though not without considerable pushback from the public health community.

Restaurants and delivery services alike are keeping these concerns in mind. Delivery companies such as DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats offer “contactless” options in which a driver will drop off your order on the porch or some other designated area. Similarly, some restaurants and coffee shops allow customers to pick up their orders from a counter, thereby avoiding contact with an employee (though maybe not with fellow customers).

Whether or not you select the contactless option for takeaway, it’s paramount to keep at least six feet away from both employees and other customers to prevent the spread of the virus. It may be easier to maintain this distance during nonpeak hours, when there are fewer customers in the restaurant or takeaway area.

“You are already doing your bit by getting food from takeout” and delivery, says Hanage, the associate professor of epidemiology. “If you take those additional steps, then you’re doing more. You’re reducing the risks yet more.”

– Are food delivery and takeout safe for the crews preparing and packaging orders?

This is an almost impossible question to answer. Every restaurant is different: Some need only a few employees to operate now, while some still have a full crew. Some have tight kitchens; some have spacious ones. Some employees can walk to work, and some have to take public transportation, which exposes them to more people who may be carrying the virus. The best thing to do is to talk to the managers of your favorite restaurants and ask how they keep their employees safe. But do so politely, with real empathy. The pressures placed on restaurateurs right now may already be too much to bear.

As the National Restaurant Association points out, the industry already “follows strict local public health guidelines. To meet these guidelines, restaurants have safety protocols and best practices in place.” On top of municipal health codes, many chefs and restaurant owners have doubled their efforts to maintain healthy workplaces, requiring more frequent cleaning of work surfaces, changing out gloves repeatedly and other new protocols.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides paid sick leave for employees who are quarantined or are experiencing coronavirus symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis. The act also covers employees who are taking care of someone under quarantine or a child out of school or day care because of the outbreak. Companies with more than 500 employees are exempt, presumably because 89 percent of workers at larger business have access to some kind of sick leave.

The new law should help keep restaurant employees – who historically work while ill because they have no paid sick leave – at home when they are not feeling well. Perhaps this is so obvious that it doesn’t bear repeating, but customers should not visit restaurants for takeout if they’re not feeling well, either. The coronavirus is not a one-way pandemic.

Despite all of 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. Some employers just didn’t think the risk was worth the return.

– 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, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, have also created assistance programs 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 program would continue regardless of the federal tax credit. Some companies, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, are also providing drivers with disinfectants, gloves, wipes and/or hand sanitizers, though some Dashers (as the drivers are called for DoorDash) have complained about the company’s shipping fees.

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.