Is your regular dinner delivery safe?

By Claire Gillespie
Updated March 16, 2020
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As COVID-19 spreads across the US and around the world, the virus is affecting every aspect of daily life. Schools are closing, people are working from home, public events are being cancelled, and people are ditching their social plans and staying home instead. It’s also having a devastating effect on restaurants.

Consulting and research group Technomic surveyed 1,000 consumers from February 28 through March 2 to get their views on life during the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers reported that more than 30% of Americans say they plan to dine out less frequently. Of those people, 13% intend to order more delivery. 

But if you’re going to avoid eating out to minimize contact with others, what about the people who cook, prepare, and deliver the food we order? 

To date, the information on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t include any advisories about whether it's safe or unsafe for people to order food delivery (or dine out, for that matter). 

For this reason, it’s crucial to be aware of public health recommendations in your community, Craig Hedberg, PhD, a University of Minnesota professor and expert on food-borne illness, tells Health. Also, the COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly, so it's smart to pay attention to news in your area. 

“What may make sense in Minneapolis may be different from what makes sense in Seattle, and what makes sense today may not make sense tomorrow,” says Hedberg. “Our public health agencies are doing their best to stay on top of emerging conditions and make recommendations accordingly.”

Having said that, people need to eat—and although eating in restaurants can be safe in most settings, according to Hedberg, food delivery services reduce the opportunities for respiratory exposure. “Waiting in lines for tables, sitting at tables tightly packed into dining rooms, or sitting with large groups are opportunities for exposure to viruses that may be carried by others,” he says.  

Food delivery doesn’t typically come with all of those routes for coronavirus exposure. But the person delivering the food needs to follow safe hygiene practices and be in good health. When it comes to the preparation of the food, Hedberg says there’s no evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted by food. According to the CDC, it spreads through droplets, from a cough or sneeze, to someone else’s nose or eyes.

With a large number of people avoiding restaurants in order to self-isolate, it’s never been more important for restaurants and delivery services to follow safe food handling practices. “We don’t want to create new food safety problems while we’re trying to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus,” says Hedberg. 

Food safety expert Benjamin Chapman, PhD, a professor at North Carolina State University, believes the possibility of contracting coronavirus is not high. "As food or food packaging has not been identified as a risk factor for COVID-19 transmission, I would say the risk is very low," Chapman tells Health.

"And the better news is that a delivery recipient can reduce their risk of transmission by good handwashing and/or using at least a 60% alcohol hand sanitizer," says Chapman. "Even if there was some sort of virus contamination of the package, you can break the transmission chain by this hand hygiene step."

If you get fed up eating at home, you can still dine out. “Eating in restaurants can be safe in most settings,” advises Hedberg. But—per the advice from the CDC—people who are at a high risk of serious illness (like the elderly and the chronically ill) should stay home and avoid public settings, including restaurants.

And if you feel ill, don’t go anywhere. “This is a primary responsibility for everyone, as is handwashing,” says Herdberg. “Unfortunately, we have a lot to learn about how best to manage this situation, and we can anticipate new recommendations coming as the situation changes. Everyone will have to be patient and stay tuned.” 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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