In the new age of risk versus rewards, where just about every move is evaluated, weighed, and quantified, consumers are asking themselves if ordering takeout and/or delivery is a safe move during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restaurants and bars, which employed approximately 15.6 million people before the pandemic struck and accounted for more than half of the U.S. jobs lost in March, are hoping to ease their fears.
Is it Safe to Order Food Delivery and Eat Takeout?
NPR recently spoke with Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University whose research includes quantitative microbial risk assessment, predictive food microbiology, handwashing, and cross-contamination.
Though he understands that people are worried, Schaffner stated that, “…from what we know currently about the virus, it’s safe to eat food prepared at restaurants so long as you take the proper precautions—in particular hand-washing.”
Hand-Washing and Other Precautions
The food industry has had long-standing, safe food-handling rules that provide safety measures which also help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Of course, these have all been beefed up a bit since the viral pandemic entered our lives. These include disinfecting surfaces, wearing gloves, workers staying home when sick, and frequent 20-second hand washing.
In addition to workers and restaurants observing safe food-handling rules, consumers can help keep themselves stay safe by following a few basic cleaning procedures. While it has been clear for some time that touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes, may spread the virus, it is not the main way that the virus spreads.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is believed to spread, predominantly, by inhaling droplets. It has, however, also been found to remain on surfaces for specified amounts of time.
Cleveland Clinic, one of the largest and most respected hospitals in the country, recently spoke with infectious disease specialist, Frank Esper, MD, regarding what we now know about the length of time the virus can hang out on a surface. According to Dr. Esper, “It likes surfaces that are very smooth, like door knobs.” It is also estimated that the virus can survive on plastic for 3 days and cardboard for 24 hours—material that is commonly used in takeout and delivery services. Keep in mind that the amount of the virus fades quickly so, even though it may be detectable on a surface, there is often not enough of it to make people sick.
There are certain precautions that you can take when eating takeout and delivery from your favorite restaurant. Clean the area you plan on placing the food on when it arrives, wash your hands for 20-seconds after removing food from takeout bags and containers and before eating, and clean and disinfect surfaces following your meal. While we may not have been quite so OCD before this year, these are all good food safety practices to continue even after the virus has gone the way of the Dodo.
If, like me, you’ve asked yourself why 20-seconds is the magic number, here’s the science behind singing Happy Birthday to yourself twice while washing your hands. Soap lather traps and encapsulates viral molecules which are then washed down the drain. But it takes time for soap to create the necessary lather and to come in contact with all of the areas that the virus may be lurking such as between your fingers, under your fingernails, and under rings—about 20 seconds to be exact.
Is the Virus Transmitted on Food?
On March 17, the FDA took the stance that “there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”
According to the CDC, “Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.”
Managing Food Pick-up and Delivery
The FDA and several third-party delivery services have established safety rules in relation to delivering consumer’s food. These include no-contact delivery which enables customers to opt to have their delivery dropped off at their door and then notified once the delivery driver has dropped it off and is at least 6-feet away.
Other established safe-food practices include increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces including counter tops, touch pads, frequently touched surfaces within the driver’s vehicles, and the coolers and insulated bags used to deliver foods.
With meal delivery services up 70 percent year-over-year in the last week of March, it’s clear that consumers are turning to food delivery as a means to sustain and enjoy themselves, as well as help their neighborhood restaurant and bar stay afloat, until life as we once knew it has resurfaced, to some degree.
The bottom line: By taking a few extra precautions, consumers can stay safe while enjoying their favorite foods and supporting their local restaurants and bars.