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Starbucks Goes Drive-Thru Only in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic

America’s third place is no longer an option


Virtually every Starbucks location in America is transitioning to drive-thru-only to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. In a press release sent on March 20, Starbucks announced that the policy would be put in place for at least two weeks and will supersede the chain’s original COVID-19 response, of making its cafes to-go only.

Many locations went so far as to remove seats and tables entirely to discourage lingering, but it wasn’t enough to keep crowds from forming. “Our cafes in some areas are experiencing high traffic, and we need to do more to prevent the spread of this virus,” Starbucks executive VP Rossann Williams said in a statement sent to employees.

A major exception to the new policy is that certain locations inside hospitals and health care centers — where exhausted doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals presumably need their caffeine fix as they battle the pandemic — will remain open.

The announcement also promises that “Starbucks will pay all partners for the next 30 days, whether they choose to come to work or not,” a provision that improves on Starbucks’ existing sick-leave policies. That policy — unfortunately, a minority among major fast-food chains and food brands — previously announced an extension of “catastrophe pay” to employees effected by the pandemic, including those who received a positive diagnosis or had possibly been exposed to the virus.

For many employees, clearing the low bar for paid sick leave was not enough to protect workers or the dining public. Earlier this week, a Philadelphia-based Starbucks barista started an online petition calling for the chain to suspend business until further notice, arguing that despite corporate-mandated sanitation policies and guaranteed sick leave, “both customers AND partners are at risk of catching and spreading the virus” when in Starbucks stores; it urges Americans to take a “national coffee break” on March 23 to encourage the chain to close. (It also notes that Starbucks locations in hospitals, which will remain open for to-go orders, are particularly high risk for employees.) As of today, the petition had gathered more than 35,000 signatures.

Many fast-food brands have elected not to close or modify operations during the pandemic, potentially putting their workers at risk. In China, where the coronavirus outbreak began in late January, Starbucks closed roughly half its stores in response to the outbreak; by late February, the vast majority were back open.