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It’s No Longer Responsible to Dine Out at Restaurants, but What About Delivery and Takeout?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and states are increasingly limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery only. Here’s how you can best avoid health risks and support your favorite local eateries.

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A delivery worker holding a red thermal delivery bag and walking on an empty street.
Ordering takeout or delivery is the responsible alternative to dining in a restaurant.
Photo: Tricky_Shark/Shutterstock

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, many states and cities have ordered all bars and restaurants to shut down except for takeout and delivery. But even in areas where dine-in service is still permitted, the responsible thing to do is forgo a sit-down meal in favor of to-go or, preferably, delivery options. Public health experts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the White House have called for the population to curtail mass gatherings and personal interaction — like the kind that can take place in crowded food and drink establishments — in an effort to help “flatten the curve” by slowing the transmission of COVID-19, preventing a spike in cases that could overwhelm hospitals.

For those who are fortunate enough to be able to follow the recommendation for social distancing by staying home or otherwise limiting their contact with others, the idea of ordering food delivery may raise a couple of questions: First, is it safe? Second, is it ethical to expose a delivery worker to the risks you seek to avoid?

The answer to the first question is generally yes, with some stipulations. There is currently no evidence of food being associated with COVID-19 transmission, according to both the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although Vox reports that there’s “growing evidence of fecal to oral transmission, meaning you can ingest the virus shed in feces, through inadequate hand washing or contaminated food and water.” It’s worth noting, however, that restaurants have long been required to follow food safety rules, in addition to extra measures now put into place in the wake of COVID-19. If you’re unsure about a restaurant’s food-handling standards, you can check its score on your local health department’s website. When it comes to the virus, the greater transmission safety risks are largely associated with interacting with other people.

The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. Yes, you should be conscious of the reality that many delivery workers currently face: a physically demanding job, theft and crime, low wages, a lack of employee benefits, and, amid this pandemic, higher exposure to customers who may be sick. But at the same time, workers rely on those delivery orders to pay their bills and support their families. “Everyone has said the same thing: If you are sick, just stay home,” one gig worker told Wired’s Arielle Pardes. “But if I stay home, I don’t get sick leave, and I don’t get paid.” In those cases, customers not ordering food could end up hurting delivery workers more, not to mention the restaurants that prepare the meals.

In a pandemic, there are no clear-cut, perfect solutions, but there are ways you as an individual can make choices that will mitigate transmission risks for both you and the workers you rely on to get your meal and let you order with a clearer conscience. Here are some suggestions:

Consider which ordering method is right for you

If your favorite restaurants have in-house delivery options, consider ordering through them directly instead of going through third-party apps, which not only take commission fees that can cut into restaurants’ already razor-thin margins, but have also been called out for questionable tactics that frustrate restaurant owners, as Eater’s editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt wrote in 2019.

But in the event that your preferred restaurants only deliver through platforms like Grubhub or Uber Eats, there are other factors you can take into consideration. For example, which companies are providing protections for at-risk delivery workers or helping restaurants whose business is plummeting? Here’s what some of those apps are doing:

  • Uber Eats said it would provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for couriers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are quarantined by public health authorities, with the stipulation that workers must have done at least one Uber Eats delivery in the 30 days before March 6 (the policy is effective until April 6). The company also said that it would provide drivers with disinfectants for workers’ cars. In addition, the company said it would waive customers’ delivery fees for more than 100,000 “independent” restaurants across the U.S. and Canada in an effort to drive sales, and has added a feature allowing customers to donate to restaurants directly in the app.
  • Postmates launched a relief fund to support medical checkups and to cover two weeks of paid sick leave for couriers who test positive for COVID-19, with the stipulation that those workers must have completed at least one Postmates delivery since February 25. The company also said it would temporarily waive commission fees for businesses in the Bay Area.
  • DoorDash (which also owns Caviar) said it would provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for couriers who are diagnosed with COVID-19, are quarantined by a doctor or public health authorities, or are housemates with someone who fulfills one of those criteria, with the stipulation that those workers must have been active on DoorDash for at least 60 days, and must have completed at least 30 deliveries in the last 30 days. The company also said it would distribute hand sanitizer and gloves to workers in affected areas. In addition, the company said “independent” restaurants could join the platform and pay zero commissions for 30 days, that existing restaurant partners wouldn’t have to pay commission fees on pick-up orders, and that there would be “additional commission reductions for eligible merchants.”
  • Instacart said it would provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for couriers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are quarantined by public health authorities, with the stipulation that those workers must have been active on Instacart in the last 14 days, and must have been working with Instacart for a minimum of 30 days. The company also said that customer ratings of workers wouldn’t affect access to orders — a real concern — and that low ratings would be automatically forgiven during this period. In light of an ongoing worker strike, Instacart also announced it would be manufacturing its own hand sanitizer and distributing free safety kits — with a mask, hand sanitizer, and thermometer — to full-service shoppers.
  • Grubhub (which also owns Seamless) said it would offer up to two weeks of paid sick leave for drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19, ordered by a doctor or public health authorities to self-isolate, or have had their account due to risk of spreading COVID-19, with the stipulation that those workers must have completed at least one Grubhub delivery in the last 30 days. The company also said it would defer the collection of $100 million in commissions that it charges to independent restaurants. Note that deferral isn’t the same as waiving fees; as Eater’s Nick Mancall-Bitel reports, after the end of the deferral period, “restaurants will have four weeks to repay the deferred commissions, after a two-week grace period in which they make the regular commission payments of between 15 and 30 percent.” More fine print includes “a stipulation that restaurants agree to keep Grubhub as a delivery service for one year after signing onto the program,” per Mancall-Bitel.

Minimize human contact

As Michael Knight, an assistant professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told Eater in early March, “it’s the people, not the food, that is the issue” when it comes to COVID-19 transmission in the context of eating. When you have prolonged contact with others, the CDC’s recommendation is to maintain a distance of six feet to avoid exposure to respiratory droplets that may carry the virus.

If you opt to pick up a to-go order from a restaurant, avoid peak hours so there are fewer people to potentially come into contact with in line at the restaurant.

But if you’re sick, at high risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, or otherwise able to stay at home as a social distancing measure, choose delivery instead of takeout to avoid interacting with more people outside.

When ordering delivery, request contactless delivery — in which couriers drop off the food at your door or at a designated location without any personal interaction — to reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission for both you and the delivery worker. Some third-party apps, like Postmates, have introduced no-contact delivery in easy dropdown options, while others are encouraging customers to type in a note specifying drop-off requests when placing an order.

Discard or disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated

According to the CDC, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

That said, you should still take the precaution of either immediately throwing away packaging materials that come with your food delivery (e.g., paper or plastic bag, receipts, menus, etc.), or be prepared to disinfect the surfaces in your home that they come into contact with. Researchers have found that the virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours to a few days, depending on the surface material.

Wash your hands and maintain good hygiene practices

Hand washing remains one of the single most important things people can do to protect themselves and others, Amy R. Sapkota, a professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told Eater earlier. After touching potentially contaminated surfaces, and before and after eating, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Other recommended hygiene practices include not touching your face with unwashed hands, as well as making sure to cough or sneeze into a tissue (or, if that’s not available, into a bent elbow) and then immediately washing your hands afterward.

Refrain from sharing

In Sapkota’s words: “In general, it’s wise not to share drinks or utensils. Particularly in this current situation, I think it would be wise not to share food.” If you need to split a shared takeout order, divide up the food onto separate plates before eating with your own utensils.

Tip generously and rate highly

The absolute minimum acceptable tip for any food delivery, as Helen Rosner wrote for Eater in 2016, is $5. In an honest-to-god pandemic, consider doubling, or even tripling that, depending on how much you ordered and your financial situation. Think of it this way: Another human being risked exposure to a highly infectious virus so that you could eat without taking a single step outside. That has to be worth something.

Another way to show your gratitude to the workers feeding you is to leave high ratings, since so many gig workers’ livelihoods depend on maintaining good ratings to be able to access their work. As Pardes wrote for Wired: “Workers with higher ratings get preference on orders, which means they get to work more. And many platforms have a threshold of how low ratings can get before a courier is bumped off the service altogether.”

Consider also leaving a nice review for the restaurant, since they, too, can be helped or hurt by what customers say on sites like Yelp and Google.

Support restaurants, staff, and gig workers in other ways

Restaurants, already notoriously difficult to operate in the black, are facing a huge loss in business, and with it, the ability to keep staff employed. If you’d like to help your favorite restaurant weather this storm, some have suggested buying restaurant gift cards or merchandise like shirts and cookbooks to help free up cash flow at this critical time. Others may consider contributing to funds for bartenders, servers, and other members of the service industry, whether through organized relief funds or by directly Venmo-ing workers in need.

The more advocacy-minded may take this crisis as an opportunity to press companies and the government to better address the issues that restaurants and workers are facing on a structural level. Mounting pressure from the public has coincided with companies like Instacart and Postmates introducing sick pay and other measures to support workers. Lawmakers, restaurant owners, and the public are calling for federal aid and relief. “We are so fucked if the federal government doesn’t immediately pass a massive stimulus bill for the hospitality sector and small business in general,” chef David Chang tweeted on March 16.

After all, if the restaurants that cook your food cease to exist — along with the millions of jobs they provide — then what are you going to get delivered while you’re in self-quarantine? As Eater’s Hillary Dixler Canavan writes: “Independent operators need a major infusion of cash — cash that’s more readily available from the government than from their stressed-out customers — to make it. They need rent alleviation, eviction protection, and tax deferrals, at a minimum, to live through this body blow.”

Now go wash your hands.

This post was last updated at 10:25 a.m. on April 6, 2020.

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