Coronavirus and COVID-19: Is it safe to order from restaurants? Is takeout or delivery better?

Editor's note: As the novel coronavirus has turned our society upside down, we've all had a number of questions about eating safely while minimizing exposure. At EatOrToss we're combing through studies and articles and consulting with experts to help you make informed choices. As scientists' understanding of the virus is constantly changing, you'll notice that we're also date stamping our information. Remember, for medical advice, call your doctor.

While much about the virus remains unknown, food safety authorities in the U.S. and Europe say there is no evidence of transmission via food or food packaging. Person-to-person interaction is thought to be how the virus spreads.

So, restaurant food itself should be OK. The greatest risk lies in the people you might directly interact with when acquiring the food. Going to the restaurant to pick up your meal, or opening your door to a delivery person exposes you to the most common means of transmission—respiratory droplets passed through the air from one person to another. Interacting with just one person is better than many, but the absolute safest option for ordering from a restaurant is a no-contact delivery, in which you pay ahead of time and a driver, either from the restaurant or a food delivery service, places the food at your door and leaves. Similarly, some restaurants offer no-contact pick-up at their locations.

“The thing people should be worried about is isolating themselves, avoiding contact as much as they can with other people. If there is a no-contact way of getting food delivered to your doorstep and you want to support a local business, I think that’s even less risk than going into a grocery store with a bunch of other people there,” Matt Moore, a food and environmental virologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told me on March 19.

What about surface contamination? Still, we’re all being told to wash our hands, avoid touching our faces and disinfect commonly touched surfaces often, so it’s easy to worry about whether a sick restaurant worker might have touched the food or breathed close enough to it to leave virus particles behind. Here's how the FDA characterized the risk from touching a contaminated surface on March 17: "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 mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."

When it comes to potentially contaminated surfaces on takeout containers or food, experts say the risk of contracting the virus is very low. First off, a sick worker who briefly touches the food or container is unlikely to leave much viable virus behind (especially in contrast to a high-touch surface like a grocery cart or self-check out credit card reader).

Even if a food worker recklessly sneezes or coughs on the food or container, the virus dries and becomes less viable over time. Moore notes that if you ate food contaminated with the virus, your stomach, bile, and digestive enzymes would probably destroy it (remember, this is a respiratory illness, not a gastrointestinal one). If you managed to touch a contaminated area on a container or food, you might pick up some virus but probably less than was initially deposited, especially if your hands and the container are dry. You’d then need to touch your face, where you’d deposit still less virus. The odds of all those factors aligning, especially on professionally prepared food, are low and there are no documented cases of such transference happening and then sickening someone. And again, to repeat what we've been hearing over and over again, frequent hand washing breaks the transmission cycle.

As Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University told The Atlantic in a March 14 article, even if the person preparing the food is sick, cooked foods “are unlikely to be a concern unless they get contaminated after cooking.” A salad might be a bit riskier, if, say, it’s sneezed on, but he said proper food handling should keep risk low.

Rutgers microbiologist Don Schaffner reached a similar conclusion in a March 16 Twitter thread, noting that even if someone sneezed on his salad he wouldn’t be overly concerned with getting the virus because it targets the respiratory tract, not the digestive system. Asked if the virus could hitch a ride to our lungs via our food, Schaffner said in a subsequent Twitter thread, “While it is also theoretically possible that a virus particle on food entering our mouth could somehow end up in our nasal passages and from there begin to infect, again we have no evidence that this happens with any regularity in the real world.”

While Schaffner and other experts aren't too worried about transmission via food served cold, you can add an extra layer of protection with thorough heating. A study on the original SARS-CoV in 2004 found that at least four minutes at 149 degrees Fahrenheit killed most virus present. This Serious Eats piece gives specific guidance for heating food to neutralize any lingering virus.

Could virus deposited on a surface become airborne again? Since the virus spreads via airborne droplets, I asked Schaffner if it would be possible, through opening a contaminated takeout box or snapping a plastic bag, for example, to send the virus back into the air where it might stealthily make its way to a person’s lungs. His response on March 18 was that while no one knows for sure, that seems very unlikely. Moore, the virologist, notes that to become aerosolized, a coronavirus typically needs to hitch a ride via a liquid, normally small droplets of salvia expelled through coughing, sneezing or even talking. Such propulsion would be tough to replicate with the simple opening of a takeout container.

What we’ve been doing at our house Watching our favorite restaurants shutter and their employees and their families face an uncertain future has been heartbreaking for my husband and me. We are comfortable with what experts say is a relatively low level of risk in ordering restaurant food, especially if it's delivered in a no-contact way. So to support our restaurant neighbors, ordering delivery is something we’re hoping to do regularly, while mostly preparing home-cooked meals.

Or approach is to order online or over the phone and request a no-contact delivery. Once the food arrives, we transfer it to our own containers (and, if the restaurant’s containers are reusable we clean them with soap and water, otherwise we throw them away or recycle them if possible). To be extra safe, we minimize contact between the to-go container surfaces and our kitchen surfaces (one way I do this is by using the stove burners as a “counter”—there are fewer contact points and next time I turn on the burner, I’ll kill anything that might have landed there). Then, we zap the food in the microwave, wipe down the areas of the kitchen we used, wash our hands a couple times along the way, and we’re good to go.

Some of this, I think, may be overkill, but it doesn’t take too long and gives us a little peace of mind. Ordering in also allows us to have the occasional decadent dinner, to support great local restaurants and to go longer without a trip to the grocery store, where risk of virus transmission is far, far greater by virtue of the many people you interact with.

Some restaurants, like DC's Gravitas, are offering frozen entrees you can save for later, as well as pantry staples, like milk and cheese. We ordered a frozen pan of moussaka, in addition to our entrees and two appetizers. Including leftovers, one no-contact delivery has netted our two-person household nearly a week’s worth of dinners.

A new website, Dining at a Distance, has been compiling lists of which restaurants are still selling food across the country. Wishing you good eating and good health during this time.

Additional resources: COVID-19 AND FOOD SAFETY FAQ: IS CORONAVIRUS A CONCERN WITH TAKEOUT? - North Carolina State University Food Safety and Coronavirus: A Comprehensive Guide: Serious Eats Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University - Q: Is it safe to order takeout food in NYC? Are there any special precautions to follow because of COVID-19?

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Content may not be duplicated without express written permission from EatOrToss LLC. All information posted on this blog is thoroughly researched, but is provided for reference and entertainment purposes only. For medical advice, please consult a doctor. Please see our terms.