When it comes to ordering in, the food itself is unlikely to be much of a danger, according to Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. Even if the person preparing it is sick, he told me via email, “cooked foods are unlikely to be a concern unless they get contaminated after cooking.” He granted that “a salad, if someone sneezes on it, might possibly be some risk,” but as long as the food is handled properly, he said, “there should be very little risk.” Now might be a good time to familiarize yourself with what your local health department thinks of the food-handling practices of your favorite restaurants.
The danger of the delivery interaction, meanwhile, depends on how it’s orchestrated. For the food’s recipient, the risk is relatively low, Morse said: “There can be transmission through contaminated inanimate objects, but we think the most important route of transmission is respiratory droplets,” which spread when someone coughs, sneezes, or even breathes in close proximity to others. As always, wash your hands before you eat. (If you’re worried about other kinds of deliveries—mail or online-shopping orders, for example—they’re also relatively unlikely to transmit the virus, but you should still wash your hands after opening them.)
Deliverers themselves are much more likely to be exposed because of all the people they encounter. Morse said the risk can be reduced for both parties if recipients ask that food be left outside the door—or, ideally, if restaurants mandate this practice to protect their employees. Customers can also tip electronically or place cash outside before the delivery arrives. In Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began a few months ago, many delivery drivers wore protective suits and masks, and carried employer-provided hand sanitizer.
Ordering takeout might seem selfish or cruel in this light, but according to Todd May, a philosophy professor at Clemson University, the ethical calculus isn’t quite so simple. He says that people should ask themselves a couple of questions first, including whether the delivery worker will travel alone by bike or car, and whether a mass exodus of delivery business from the area will harm workers more than protect them. “It’s the responsibility of the person ordering food to try as best they can to get a grip on that,” May wrote to me in an email.
The places people order from make a difference too. A local restaurant is a better choice than a start-up that sends gig workers with no health-care benefits into crowded big-box grocery stores to fight over dried beans on your behalf. The restaurant delivery person interacts with fewer people, lessening his or her individual risk, and the money you pay for the food goes toward keeping a restaurant’s staff employed through a crisis. In Wuhan, local delivery drivers were the city’s lifeline during a lockdown that made venturing out for fresh food difficult.