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An employee at a San Francisco restaurant hands a takeout order to a customer through a window on April 1. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Is takeout food safe during COVID-19?

Katherine Wiles Apr 2, 2020
An employee at a San Francisco restaurant hands a takeout order to a customer through a window on April 1. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

With three-fourths of governors issuing statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders during COVID-19, it can be hard to know what is or isn’t safe. Restaurants and bars across the country are limited to takeout or delivery only in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. In this time of uncertainty, is it safe to order your favorite Thai food and support your local restaurant?

Marketplace spoke with two experts to find out and to get some tips on how to stay safe while chowing down on pad thai and helping your local restaurants stay afloat during the pandemic. 

Is takeout food safe?

Yes. The USDA, CDC and FDA all say that there is no evidence that the novel coronavirus is transmitted through food or food packaging. A study did show that the virus could survive in the air for several hours and on surfaces like plastic for up to three days. But, Paula Cannon, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Keck School of Medicine of USC, said it’s important to remember that the study was done in a laboratory in a controlled experiment with conditions that are not found in everyday life.

“I will tell you as a virologist, I’m not worried at all about the risk of there being anything on packages, Amazon boxes, food containers or anything like that,” Cannon said. “Having said that, it’s totally OK to be a bit freaked out. I’m not going to criticize anybody for that, and it’s OK to be, you know, kind of a bit of an obsessive sort of hypochondriac at the moment.”

The main concern is transmission from person to person, according to Ryan Steele, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Yale School of Medicine and program director of the Yale Allergy & Immunology Contact Dermatitis Program.

Here are some tips to keep yourself, your family and local restaurant workers safe and supported during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Call the restaurant ahead of time and ask how they’re protecting you and their workers

Cannon said it’s a good idea to give the restaurant a call and ask questions about their procedures during COVID-19. Are they practicing social distancing in the restaurant with limited staff? Are they washing their hands even more often? Are they taking payment information over the phone or through an app like Venmo? Will they bring the food out to your car and put it in the trunk for you? A sensible precaution is not walking into the restaurant and practicing social distancing, Cannon said. 

Steele said to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between you and other people and avoid going to restaurants at peak hours.

“The people who are delivering my food are such an important part of the workforce …”

Paula Cannon, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Keck School of Medicine of USC

If you’re getting the food delivered from the restaurant, ask about what they’re doing to protect the delivery person. Delivery drivers are essential workers, Steele said, and protecting them is important as well.

“The less interaction that we have, the better,” he said.

Cannon has ordered from restaurants she knows well and asks for the delivery person’s phone number so she can contact them directly. She talks with the delivery person and they determine the best way to drop the food off to keep them both safe, which might be just leaving it on her porch and texting that it’s there.

“Then I check with either the delivery person or the restaurant ahead of time and I say, ‘How are we handling tipping?” Cannon said. “The people who are delivering my food are such an important part of the workforce right now, and I want to make sure that I can tip them generously.”

Another good question to ask is what food is easiest for the restaurant to make right now. Some restaurants are having trouble getting certain ingredients, and are working with a limited staff. 

2. Order in bulk to limit interactions with other people

What would be a good dish to eat now, and what would be good to keep in the refrigerator or freezer for a few days?

“By bulking up like that, you give a boost to the restaurants, and you limit some of the transactions that are required around getting you the food,” Cannon said.

“The less interaction that we have, the better.”

Ryan Steele, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Yale School of Medicine

3. Transfer the food to a different container, and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds

Cannon said that while it’s unlikely you’ll get the virus from food packaging, it’s good to be a bit more vigilant than usual. If your takeout food came in bags, remove the food and throw the bags out. 

Set the food containers on a clean countertop. Then, wash your hands. Next, get some containers of your own — dishes if you’re eating it now or Tupperware if you’re going to store it for a few days — and transfer the food with clean utensils. 

“Don’t be tempted to put the takeout containers in the fridge, because that would just potentially contaminate the surface it’s coming into contact with,” Steele said.

As Cannon said, transmission from containers is unlikely, but it’s a good idea to throw out the food containers to be sure, and wash your hands! Steele said to thoroughly clean any surface that has come into contact with the takeout bags or containers. 

4. Don’t share food or drinks, even with your quarantine buddies

“Don’t share food between everybody in the house [and] try to refrain from sharing drinks,” Steele said. “We’ve seen a lot of asymptomatic transmission.”

The virus wouldn’t be in your food or drinks, Steele said, but it could be on the dishes, plates or cups. Limiting the possible transmission between people in the household is the goal.

5. If you’re sick, don’t go out

If you’re feeling sick, send somebody else out to get the food, Steele said. Don’t go out if you’re ill, even if you’re wearing protective gear. It’s not just for your safety, but for everyone else’s, too.

Many states are limiting restaurants to to-go orders only to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Katherine Wiles/Marketplace)

“Things like the N95 masks and everything that’s in short supply now, we need those in the hospitals,” Steele said. “If everyone is following basic sanitary guidelines, we can really have a big impact on flattening the curve.”

Still concerned?

There can still be concerns about someone who might have the virus preparing your food or transferring it to you somehow. The good thing about this virus, Cannon said, is that it’s very fragile. 

“It’s destroyed by heat, it’s destroyed by even basic cleaners and soaps and detergents, probably shampoo and laundry detergent and everything like that,” she said.

If you’re worried your food is somehow carrying the virus, throw it in the oven or microwave for a few minutes. Leaving food in the refrigerator or freezer for a few days will also kill the virus, Cannon said, because time does kill the virus.

“It just becomes routine”

Taking these extra steps might seem extreme or odd at first, but they’re important to ensure the safety of you and your family while supporting businesses you care about.

“Managing the art of getting takeout food and feeling comfortable about it is a super important skill to have at the moment because it will make sure that you will eat better foods, and you will support businesses and restaurants and people who rely on them,” Cannon said. “It’s a little bit weird. It’s a little bit different than anything we’ve done. But honestly, once you’ve done it once or twice, it just becomes routine.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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