ALEXANDRIA, Va.—America’s restaurants are slowly reopening for business. Many are serving customers indoors, and others provide outdoor-only service. And some restaurants, such as those in New York City and Los Angeles, are not yet permitted to provide sit-down dining.
According to the New York Times, takeout and delivery are still the most convenient options for consumers who prefer not to cook during the pandemic, but many questions remain about the risks of those foods. Food-safety specialists and public health experts weigh in on the safe handling of food in retail.
“There’s no evidence that the virus is transmitted by food,” said Donald Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University. “Therefore, the safest choice is going to be the one that avoids contact with the most people.”
Experts say both takeout and delivery have less risks than restaurant dining since the consumer is not around other people for a long period of time, and contactless delivery is best because workers leave the food at the customer’s door. If a restaurant doesn’t offer delivery, takeout is still a relatively safe option. It’s the proximity to other customers waiting for their orders that could pose a problem.
For takeout, restaurant staff should put the food down and walk away before customers pick it up. Patrons should be reminded to stand far apart from other customers, and pay electronically, which will help keep everyone safer.
Packaging has a low-risk transmitter of disease. The CDC says surfaces contaminated with droplets of the virus can infect people but adds that it’s “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
If a person infected with COVID-19 touched a package, the risk of transmission is unlikely, according to Dr. John Williams, the chief of pediatric diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh. “That person would have to contaminate their own hands (for example, wiping their nose), touch and contaminate the package, and then we would have to touch the package in the same place and then rub our nose or eyes,” Williams said.
The virus would have to live on the packaging as it was transported from the restaurant to the consumer’s home, and the risk of it making it there is “astonishingly low,” said Dr. Paula Cannon, a professor of immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. Anyone with concerns can wipe down food packages with a disinfectant and recycle the bags, wash their hands and then transfer the food to a plate.
Because the virus is not believed to be carried by food, customers can order anything. “The risk lies on interacting with people, not on the type of food,” said Olga Padilla-Zakour, director of the Cornell Food Venture Center at Cornell University.
Customers still worried can warm the food first before eating it as heat kills most pathogens. The coronavirus thrives in wet conditions, and heat dries moisture. Still, cold foods or those with raw ingredients, like sushi, are just as safe. “I wouldn’t say that sushi is any riskier than a hamburger or fresh produce that I get at the grocery store,” Chapman told the New York Times. “Food just isn’t something that we’re seeing as a transmission route.”
To further ease worried patrons, restaurants can make sure their workers are protected. At a minimum, have employees wear protective gear, such as masks and gloves. When possible, allow workers access to sick pay to discourage working if they’re ill.
NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.