Takeout orders won’t give you COVID-19. It’s food service workers who face brunt of pandemic

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Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, chips and salsa for takeout from District Taco restaurant. Photo credit: Brandon Dewey.

Fast food workers at more than 30 restaurants in Los Angeles are striking Thursday, demanding safer work conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. The walkouts are inspired by a series of strikes at a South LA McDonald’s where a worker tested positive for COVID-19. 

We talk about food workers’ health, plus the safety of consuming meals made by other people. That’s the subject of today’s Daily Dose with Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis.

Right now, restaurant operators are adjusting to a new business model of delivery and takeout. That learning curve might lead to roadblocks, and new duties (including stricter cleaning schedules) might add stress, says Wilkes.

“Workers undoubtedly could be better protected. It's hard keeping people six feet apart and making sure that there's protection between staff and the customers who come in.”

However, delivery drivers face the highest risks right now, he says.

“They've got a really tough job. They can't clean the environment everywhere they go. ... If they do get sick, most of them, I think, have no health insurance, which means that they hold off going to the doctor until they're really, really sick, which means that when they do go, they're vulnerable to huge bills and perhaps bankruptcy. This is probably the poster child example for why we need to look much more carefully at some sort of national comprehensive health insurance. This is just, I think, inexcusable.”

However, he says there are ways to help. When making delivery orders, try to use debit/credit cards, and avoid exchanging paper money and coins. When receiving orders, make sure to keep at least six feet apart.

Restaurants closed, downtown Culver City, Mar 18 2020-Amy Ta-7.jpgHoney's Kettle Restaurant and Bakery in downtown Culver City focuses on takeout and delivery. Photo by Amy Ta. 

Should customers be concerned about whether food is prepared safely?

To date, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 transmission through food or food packing in the United States.  

Coronaviruses of any type spread primarily through sneezing and coughing. But Wilkes says that if the virus does get onto food, it is killed by stomach acids and will not be transmitted through the gastrointestinal system. 

“Of all the ways that you can catch this virus, it appears that food is very low on the list,” he observes.

He notes that the safety of food prepared by others boils down to how committed food service workers are to healthy practices, plus how much pressure they’re under. 

“A lot of it depends on the establishment and the education that these establishments give to their food service workers. ... If the companies push really hard around increasing the volume of food, then workers ... are going to cut corners and safety suffers.”

Wash hands, Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice-Amy Ta-2.jpg
At this business in Venice, a sign orders people to wash their hands before entering. Photo by Amy Ta. 

But he assures that food cooked at high temperatures and not touched by humans afterwards are safe. Complications may arise, however, when food gets to workers’ hands, even if those hands are gloved.   

“One of the biggest problems that we're seeing in this whole infection is this concept of gloves, not only by food workers, but everyone. Gloves, I think, are causing more problems than they're solving.”

Wilkes recommends that once food arrives, it’s important to plate it and discard any wrappers or containers it came in.

But the best bet, he says, is to buy your own groceries and eat foods that you can cook at home during COVID-19.