Is It Safe To Order Take-Out Food During The COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic?

April 1, 2020

Being we've been tracking local restaurants that continue to stay open for take-out and delivery during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, many have asked us if it is safe to order out. This is an especially important question in light of recent news that five San Diego food handlers have tested positive for the virus. Here are my thoughts on the subject with links to sources. We encourage you to take from this what you will and do your own research on the subject, knowing that the information and research available is constantly updating and changing.

First, it is necessary to note that I am in no way a health professional. With that disclaimer behind us, I am an avid researcher and have been actively consuming the latest COVID-19 information and developments from leading health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and the Harvard Medical School Coronavirus Resource Center, to name a few. Based on the information out there, I believe ordering food for take-out from restaurants is not completely safe but can be made so by following certain measures.

Researchers have concluded that coronavirus COVID-19 germs stay stable for several hours to days in aerosols and on surfaces, specifically in aerosols for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastics and stainless steel. Studies on the subject have determined that people may acquire the virus through the air and after touching contaminated objects.

The novel coronavirus disease can spread from person to person through small saliva droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with the disease coughs, sneezes, exhales or even talks, as the breath particles can land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people can then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch the virus if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets, which is why social distancing and frequent hand sanitation are the recommended preventative measures aimed at "flattening the curve", or in other words, reducing the spread of the disease.

San Diego COVID-19 cases by zip code as of 4/1/2020
It has been determined that COVID-19 has an incubation period (time from exposure to development of symptoms) ranging from 2-14 days, and people are thought to be contagious early in the course of their illness. While the risk of catching COVID-19 from someone with no symptoms at all is very low, according to WHO, many people with the virus experience only mild symptoms. This is particularly true at the early stages of the disease, so it is possible to catch COVID-19 from someone who has, for example, just a mild cough and does not feel ill at all.

While it is true restaurants are under more scrutiny by local health departments requiring them to maintain standards higher than are self-imposed by most regular people, I do not believe this to be dogma. At such a difficult time as now, the hospitality industry must act in the interest of self-preservation, meaning they have to balance their own health concerns and that of the population at large with a need to continue to maintain a livelihood through their business. Eateries boast going above and beyond to implement precautionary measures to keep themselves and their customers safe, but who really knows? Also, what are these 3rd party delivery services (Postmates, UberEats, GrubHub etc.) doing to increase safety measures during the time of COVID-19? While many are adding no-contact delivery (patrons can opt for items to be left at the door), I have not seen any 3rd party food delivery providers detail increased precautions put in place to reduce exposure from driver to package.

My last trip outside on March 26 to get water, mails & burritos
"Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19," stated the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as of March 27.

Okay, so restaurant workers/delivery drivers could have the coronavirus, not show any symptoms while being contagious, and can transmit germs to any take-out food and its packaging? Yes, this is true. So, what do you do to protect yourself? Personally, and I get this may an unpopular opinion to my restaurateur and hospitality industry colleagues struggling to financially stay afloat, I am only ordering restaurant take-out on a limited basis and am not using any 3rd party delivery services. I will only order food that can be immediately reheated so, no salads, cold items, etc.. I love the idea of eateries offering cook-at-home meal kits, as well as packaging in oven-ready containers like aluminum so dishes can be immediately placed in an oven and reheated. Here is my personal procedure for ordering take-out.

I call in my order to limit time spent out and about. I pick up the order wearing a face mask and food grade plastic gloves. I choose curbside delivery and ask that the items are placed on the roof of my car. I ask if the restaurant accepts Apple Pay or any other non-contact payment system. If so, I pay by that method or, if not, I pay via credit card, which I immediately clean with bleach wipes or put into my back pocket to be sanitized later. I dispose of carrying bags, clean the packaging of the food with Lysol spray and wipes, put the food containers into my own reusable bag, and place that into the trunk of my car.

Take out burrito from Vallarta Express after being reheated in
toaster oven in foil on 300 degrees for about 20 minutes.
The salsa containers were also soaked in antibacterial dish soap water. 
Upon arriving home, I leave the food packages at my door. My partner opens the door and, without touching any knobs or handles, I remove my gloves, throw them away, and clean my hands vigorously. I return to the food packages outside and open them, holding them as my partner transfers the contents into microwave or oven-safe receptacles to be immediately reheated. My partner takes the food directly to the oven/microwave and I dispose of the packaging, leaving the reusable bag at the front door. I return inside to rewash my hands/credit card/phone/keys and anything else that has come into contact with the outside world. This is pretty much the same procedure we have when we get groceries and other packages delivered. Nothing comes inside until it has been sanitized.

Is my method obsessive compulsive or truly safe? WHO has determined that disinfectants cause the virus to lose infectivity after exposure, so cleaning as much as possible helps. While the virus only minimally loses concentration in cold to freezing environments, heating at 133 degrees Fahrenheit (56 degrees celsius) for 15 minutes is believed to kill the coronavirus. Others are recommending bringing the interior temperature to approximately 150 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 3 minutes. It is also necessary to make sure, if using a microwave, that food is cooked evenly and there are no cold spots.

There you have it. This is simply my analysis based upon my own research. I felt compelled to share this information and to caution the community while encouraging people to continue to eat take-out food in a safe manner. You can be a grown-up and come to your own conclusions as to what precautions are necessitated to protect yourself and your family.