As we enter the sixth month of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, those of us in lower-risk areas may be wondering whether it’s safe to eat at restaurants given that the number of cases continue to surge nationwide. The short answer? Yes, but with some caution.
A new study from the CDC found adults with COVID-19 were twice as likely to have been to a restaurant. Published Sept. 11, the CDC's study looked at 802 patients at 11 different health care facilities across the U.S. Per the study, “adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”
The implications of these results are significant. As the CDC report states, "Eating and drinking on-site at locations that offer such options might be important risk factors associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection." In turn, their recommendation is for people to reduce exposure to places where it's difficult to socially distance and wear a mask (e.g. when eating and drinking).
Additionally, the study found “no significant difference” between case-patients and control patients when it came to activities like shopping, using public transportation, or going to work in an office. In other words, those activities didn't appear to have as significant a correlation as dining in restaurants and testing positive for COVID-19. A restricted analysis among 225 participants who didn't report recent close contact with someone known to be COVID-19-positive, "case patients were more likely than were control participants to have reported dining at a restaurant.”
Here are some other things to keep in mind if you are considering eating at a restaurant.
Can Coronavirus Spread Through Food?
As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 isn’t known to be transmitted through food. Bustle spoke with Natasha Bhuyan, MD, family provider and regional medical director at One Medical, via email, who also confirmed that food is not a transmitter of COVID-19. “Food is not considered an official source of transmission of coronavirus,” Bhuyan says, “so it is generally safe to consume both pre-packaged food, grab-and-go foods, as well as cooked foods.”
How Is Coronavirus Transmitted?
Transmission happens through respiratory droplets or, less scientifically, the stuff that comes out when you sneeze or cough. If an uninfected person comes into contact with these infected respiratory droplets—like touching a contaminated door handle and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth—transmission can occur and that person may become sick, according to the World Health Organization. In other words, restaurant food itself isn’t cause for concern; it’s the hard surfaces—tables, door handles, menus, utensils—which can be contaminated by these infected respiratory droplets.
Virologists have discovered that the viruses these respiratory droplets can survive on hard surfaces for hours, making it even more important to wash your hands and keep areas of contact clean. As Bhuyan tells Bustle there is a theoretic risk that exists when it comes to food exposed to these respiratory droplets. However, “The virus would be killed through cooking hot foods” and there have been no reports of this kind of transmission.
If you aren’t in a high-risk area, Bhuyan says, and are not showing signs of COVID-19— fever, shortness of breathing, coughing—you don't need to avoid eating out entirely. While you may want to use slightly more caution at buffets and be smart about eating off common serving plates, health experts are not explicitly advising you to avoid restaurants altogether. “While the novel coronavirus can live on surfaces, there is currently no evidence that food is an actual source of transmission,” Bhuyan says. Just be sure to wash your hands before you sit down to eat and avoid touching your face while eating food until you’ve washed your hands or used hand sanitizer.
Are Food Delivery Services Safer During The Coronavirus Outbreak?
Companies like Postmates and DoorDash, Shipt, Instacart, and FreshDirect have introduced drop-off delivery options, allowing customers to request that deliveries be left on the doorstep in order to limit exposure. However, this poses a more important question: how will restaurants ensure their employees have ample sick time and be compensated accordingly?
Vulnerable workers, like those in the food service industry, likely don’t have paid sick leave. According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of workers in the leisure and hospitality industry do not have access to paid sick leave. Additionally, nearly 60% of part-time employees don’t have paid sick leave, per the same report.
Though the National Restaurant Association recommends sending employees home “who are showing flu-like symptoms” until they are symptom-free, that doesn’t account for the fact that many people cannot afford to take unpaid sick time and, in turn, quite literally can’t afford to be sick.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) general standards still apply — including the possibility of flexible work hours — this does not include guaranteed paid sick leave. While a growing percentage of U.S. workers have access to paid sick leave, low-income workers, like those in the foodservice industry are far less likely to be compensated by their employers for sick days. The U.S. is the only one of the 22 richest countries globally to not have mandatory paid sick leave.
Also, hi, hello, a friendly reminder: don’t be racist. As the New York Post reports, restaurants in NYC’s Chinatown are suffering disproportionately amidst the coronavirus outbreak with some Chinese-owned businesses seeing sales plummet by 60%. Avoiding Chinese restaurants while still dining at Cheesecake Factory doesn’t make you less likely to be exposed to COVID-19. It just makes you look like you are making assumptions about workers’ personal information based on the color of their skin (read: racist).
While the city of Wuhan in China was at the epicenter of the known outbreak, a growing number of cases are being reported across the world include a significant number of cases in Italy, France, and Germany. The World Health Organization’s latest report notes known cases of COVID-19 in 114 countries globally.
Again, as long as you aren’t in a high-risk area, wash your hands regularly, and are mindful of what you’re touching, you are OK to eat at restaurants as you please.
Studies cited: Fisher, Kiva A., et al (2020). Community and Close Contact Exposures Associated with COVID-19 Among Symptomatic Adults ≥18 Years in 11 Outpatient Health Care Facilities. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6936a5.htm?s_cid=mm6936a5_w
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC or NHS 111 in the UK for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.
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