March 17, 2020, 10:30 am EST

There’s a new term flying around out there in regard to COVID-19: social distancing. In light of the novel strain of coronavirus being classified by the WHO as a pandemic (which means the virus can spread between people sustainably), people are generally being advised to stay away from other people. Most state officials have ordered restaurants and bars closed, with the exception of delivery. But is food delivery safe from novel coronavirus spread? 

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Is it possible to get infected through the containers and bags your food comes in? What about the food itself? The goal of this social distancing is to reduce the chances of an infected person coming in contact with those who are not infected to minimize the spread of a contagious virus. When it comes to food delivery, it’s possible to order and consume your takeout safely. Here’s what you need to know.

Can COVID-19 be passed on through food?

Long story short: no. Here’s how we know: Much of our information about COVID-19 comes from the study of other strains of coronavirus. One of the most well-known is the SARS coronavirus, which has been studied extensively. Because this new strain, COVID-19, has not been around long enough to be studied in-depth, many observations about the virus can be made by these other strains.

Experience with these other strains suggests that people are not infected with the virus through food. According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, COVID-19 needs a host (human) to live on, therefore cannot grow in food

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to date, there is also no evidence that COVID-19 can be passed through food, including raw food. Furthermore, it has been shown that a heat treatment of at least 30 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit is effective at killing SARS, so it is believed thorough cooking would kill COVID-19 as well. The CDC adds, “In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.”

As always, it is important to follow food safety guidelines which include washing hands, utensils, surfaces, fruits, and vegetables, avoiding cross contamination, cooking foods to the right temperatures, and refrigerating and freezing food properly.

What about the food packaging?

According to the FDA, currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, it is possible that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on objects or surfaces. How long it can survive on these surfaces is still in question, but a study published in February in the Journal of Hospital Infection analyzed these other coronavirus strains and concluded that if this novel coronavirus is similar, it could stay on surfaces such as metal, glass, or plastic for as long as nine days.  

The good news is there are disinfectants that are expected to be effective against COVID-19 based on data for harder to kill viruses. You can find that list here. As always, follow instructions on the product label for cleaning. If you are worried about food packaging, there is no harm in wiping down appropriate items as they enter your home. It is important to note that these disinfectants should not be used on the ingestible food and your skin. 

For meal delivery, are the restaurants providing the food doing anything to reduce risk of spread?

Yes! Restaurants are being vigilant about making sure their staffers are not coming to work sick. You have to remember, the restaurant industry has dealt with outbreaks before: norovirus, hepatitis A, influenza. They have protocols in place and have spent a lot of time preparing regulations and operating procedures. Many restaurants are doubling down on cleaning procedures, rearranging dining rooms to keep patrons at a distance from each other, and making it easier for people to carry out food.

Are there any precautions I should take if I get food delivered?

We already mentioned wiping down plastic or glass surfaces of food products and washing all fruits and vegetables properly. In addition, many food delivery companies are taking social distancing further by offering “no contact delivery” options. This may protect both you and the person delivering your food and is a good step to take if you are able.

While dining is becoming more and more of an individual activity, it is important to think of those who are financially impacted. According to the National Restaurant Association, there are more than 15 million trained employees in the restaurant industry, many of whom live off of tips. Not to mention the restaurants operate with tight profit margins. With fewer and fewer patrons, these employees are watching their source of income dwindle. In addition, with more and more people being put on quarantine daily, many are left without sick leave and without options. According to the New York Times, there is no federal law requiring employers to provide paid, job-protected sick leave and only 59% of small business employees have it.

With this in mind, think about adding some extra dollars to your waiters or delivery people if you are able. Maybe even think about buying some gift cards to your favorite restaurants; you can help keep them in business and have a nice meal once everything calms down. Now more than ever it’s important to focus on your community (while also making sure to keep at least six feet away from it).

Erin Hays is a fourth year medical student at the University of Maryland. She will begin her urology residency at Georgetown in June 2020. 


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