Jessica Tillipman figures she has eaten out for lunch every work day for the past 12 years, not counting the occasional catered spread, which is a whole other issue as the coronavirus raises fears about sharing a meal in public. But the assistant dean at George Washington University Law School says she is reconsidering her habit as the virus potentially spreads in the greater Washington area.
Tillipman, 41, is mostly concerned about buffets or counter-service restaurants where customers may share serving spoons or credit-card touch screens or even condiment shakers. On Monday, she skipped the sprinkle station at her local poke shop out of an abundance of caution, and when she signed her name on the touch screen, Tillipman used her pinkie to make a single dot. Then she immediately rubbed her hands with sanitizer.
“I’m fully aware of the absurdity of my actions right now,” she says.
Tillipman says it’s a matter of time before she starts bringing her lunch to work. “I don’t think it’s worth putting my family’s safety or friends’ and colleagues’ safety in jeopardy with me getting sick,” she says. “But at some point, I think it’s going to be a necessity for everybody.”
Diners across the country are reassessing their relationship with restaurants, fast-casuals and even neighborhood bodegas as the coronavirus makes its rounds. Many diners remain wary of setting foot into eateries of all kinds, even though public health experts say restaurants are just as safe — and perhaps even safer — than other public spaces, such as buses, subways and event venues, where people are packed closer together than the three-foot buffer recommended by the World Health Organization between you and a coughing or sneezing person.
Owners and operators across the United States, from corporations such as McDonald’s to your local pizzeria, are hyper-aware of customer concerns. They only have to read the stories out of Italy to know how quickly fortunes can change from a packed restaurant to a ghost town. So they’re trying to get ahead of the fears by implementing new procedures and tightening up current ones.
Here’s what people should know about dining out right now:
Leana Wen, a physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, notes that the coronavirus spread is a “very fluid” situation and that people should keep monitoring it so they’re basing their choices on the latest information. “People should make decisions right as they go out,” she says.
They should heed the most up-to-date advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, and because the outbreak is playing out differently in areas around the country, they should also be aware of what local health officials are recommending.
Right now, the CDC is advising people at high risk to avoid crowds. High-risk people — older people and those with underlying conditions — in areas where the virus is spreading should “take extra measures to put distance between yourself and other people,” according to the CDC, and “stay home as much as possible.”
Such “social distancing” hasn’t been recommended for the general population, though people such as Christian Bergland are already thinking about such things. Bergland, a 33-year-old nonprofit worker in New York City, says he’s thinking about keeping his distance from small mom-and-pop eateries, where employees handle cash and then hand over your food.
If the coronavirus gets worse, Bergland says, “I think I will be skipping the pizza spots for a bit.”
Eateries are taking extra precautions.
While you can’t come into contact with the virus through food, the hard surfaces you encounter in a restaurant, such as menus, utensils, salt shakers and the like, are another story. Larry Lynch, senior vice president of certification and operations at the National Restaurant Association, says his organization is telling restaurants to pay particular attention to wiping things down. Restaurants are being advised to use fresh cleaning cloths, and they are circulating the Environmental Protection Agency’s new list of disinfectants that are effective against the coronavirus.
Lynch says diners should take comfort in the fact that restaurants have been meeting food safety and sanitation standards for decades, so they already have protocols in place.
Regardless, restaurants and chains are implementing new procedures to deal with potential contamination. At McDonald’s, for example, operators have increased the number of hand-sanitizer dispensers at entrances and in the waiting areas of their restaurants. They are also disinfecting trays, dining room tables and chairs after each use. They have even increased the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing high-touch surfaces such as doors, kiosks, touch screens, restrooms and more. They have also reminded employees to stay home when sick.
“The health and well-being of our people, our customers and our communities is our highest priority and drives our decision-making. As we proactively monitor the impact of the coronavirus, we are continuously evaluating our policies to provide flexibility and reasonable accommodations,” a McDonald’s spokesperson said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Ivan Iricanin, whose Street Guys Hospitality group operates more than a dozen eateries in the Washington area, including Ambar, says that his restaurants have increased the frequency of wipe-downs and that management met with the cleaning services they employ to make sure they were equipped — basically, just a stepped-up version of their day-to-day vigilance.
“It’s business as usual,” he says. “But we’re doing our best to stay on top of our game.”
Hot bars and buffets remain a particular concern for diners such as Tillipman. At Wegmans, the supermarket chain with locations throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England, hot-bar customers always have the option of preparing their own meals or purchasing premade ones. Everything on the hot bar and cold bar can be purchased in package form, too, says Deana Percassi, director of public relations for Wegmans.
“We’re watching as sales come in. We’re watching what customers are preferring,” Percassi adds. “We’re preparing more for a push for the package foods.”
Aubree Gordon, an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, says diners should be mindful of buffets and come prepared with hand sanitizer or plans to wash their hands. Even a contaminated buffet utensil probably doesn’t have a lot of the virus on it, she said, meaning you wouldn’t be able to spread it from your hands to the takeout box and your wallet and your credit card and the point-of-sale system. “It’s not going to go on indefinitely,” she says. “The big risk is that it’s on the spoon, and you touch that, then you touch your face — or you touch your phone which later touches your face.”
Roger Berkowitz, the president and chief executive of Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, says that sanitation has long been a big priority for his company — it has its own in-house food inspectors who conduct surprise visits — it’s just not one that it has wanted to show off to consumers. “There’s always a conundrum: We do these things behind the scenes, and it’s hard to convey that in an appetizing way,” he said. “So instead of, ‘We test for fecal coliform!’” we’ll talk about the ‘purity’ of the product.”
That might change, he said, as public fears grow. “If there was a time that the public might be open to hearing a message like, ‘We disinfect with peroxide!’ it might be now,” he says.
It’s not the food, it’s the people.
There’s no indication, health officials say, that the coronavirus can be transmitted on food. Wen notes that the virus does not appear to be orally transmitted. Rather, it is a respiratory illness spread through droplets — from a person’s sneeze, for example — that are then transmitted through the nostrils or eyes of someone else.
That means you’re not any more at risk in a restaurant than in other public places, such as on public transit or in retail stores. “In fact, there may be less risk, because the risk is the number of people you are in contact with and in close proximity to,” Wen says. “The number of people who come into close proximity to you on a crowded bus is far more.”
One of the biggest concerns that diners cite is encountering restaurant workers who might be sick. Lynch, of the National Restaurant Association, says his organization is advising member restaurants around the country to make sure that members of their staffs aren’t reporting to work sick and that they have plans in place for how to deal with workers showing any type of cold or flu-like symptoms.
Iricanin says the operation’s 280 employees have been told through emails and in meetings to stay home if they are sick. They are also being instructed to alert their managers to fellow employees or customers who might be.
CapitalSpring, an investment firm that owns thousands of restaurants, including Taco Bell and Wendy’s franchises, told CNBC that it is offering its employees talking points to deal with customers or fellow employees they suspect of being ill.
Patrons should be aware that they could be the ones spreading the virus, and Lynch says he is recommending that restaurants offer guests hand sanitizer and tissues.
And, possibly, everything else.
Not all restaurants are as careful — and coronavirus threat or no, diners should always be aware of the potential for cross-contamination from objects at their tables, says Dawn Anderson, chair of the Department of Public & Allied Health at Bowling Green University. She conducted a study of fecal bacteria found on the menus, ketchup bottles and salt shakers at a few bar and grill-style restaurants in her area and found that at least one strain of such bacteria was present on every ketchup bottle and most menus.
Wen says the virus can lurk in these places. Both she and Anderson say diners should wash their hands throughout their meals. “The advice is not ‘don’t touch anything,’ it’s ‘wash your hands after you touch things,’” she says.
Delivery can be safer, but …
Getting your favorite eatery’s dishes delivered to your door is one way to limit your exposure to other people. The CDC advice to high-risk people in virus-struck areas includes: “Consider ways of getting food brought to your house through family, social or commercial networks.”
Taking the avoiding-people route a step further, food-delivery service Postmates last week introduced new drop-off options, including a “no contact” one in which customers can request that the delivery is left at their doors. Still, there is a chance that the person handling your delivery could have transmitted it to the packaging.
Kathy Hollinger, the chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, says she is helping to spread the directive from the National Restaurant Association that restaurant workers should keep an eye out. “We’re saying that if a delivery driver looks sick, there should be judgment used about whether the food should be given to them,” she says.
The bottom line? Use common sense, be observant — and ask questions.
Lynch says that if diners feel uncertain about the measures a restaurant is taking to minimize risk, they should ask a manager. And if they want something wiped down before they touch it, such as a credit card or a menu, they should ask.
Berkowitz echoed that advice. “If there’s any trepidation, diners should feel free to ask,” he said, whether it’s what the restaurant uses to disinfect with or what’s going on in the back of the house. “If the server can’t answer, maybe they find a manager or someone who can — but if they slough it off, that’s not an appropriate response.”
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