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

Monday April 13 2020

 

By Your Health Reporter

Whether it’s your ordinary portion of chips mayai, sekela or baba ganoush at your favourite Lebanese restaurant, a lot of Tanzanians are avoiding going to the restaurants as a means to social distance themselves to help contain the novel coronavirus.

Tanzania as of April 10, recorded two deaths from Covid-19 infection, bringing a total to three, and five more patients tested positive of the virus bringing the total number to 32 cases.

Because of maintaining physical and social distance protocal from experts and ministry of health, quite a number of Tanzanians are now living under stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus, which may be one big reason why we’re no more going out to eat and 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 with a cold can of baked beans.

Naturally, these queries can be answered from any number of perspectives:

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Whether via an app or a phone call, 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 per cent 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 realise 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 patronise only those restaurants/takeaways that you know and trust.

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 Organisation (WHO) 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. Some local delivery companies 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 favourite 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.

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?

Most food delivery drivers in Tanzania are bodaboda drivers hired by restaurateurs.

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.

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