Is it safe – and ethical – to order food online during the coronavirus outbreak?

If you order from a place that treats workers with care, you’re supporting small businesses, families and the economy

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As multiple cities go into lockdown across the US, services such as Instacart, Uber Eats, Seamless and DoorDash are expecting huge surges in delivery orders. Amazon is hiring hundreds of extra workers to keep up with the demand. This raises an ethical dilemma: is it morally acceptable to ask others – normally in less secure jobs with worse pay – to take on a risk that you don’t want to?

Are couriers are more at risk of catching Covid-19?

Dr Thomas Tsai, infectious diseases expert: The Covid-19 virus is borne by droplets transmitted through, for example, coughing and sneezing. There is a unique challenge for food delivery couriers who are potentially traveling between multiple sites: from restaurants and from house to house. Especially if they are making deliveries to families who are in quarantine because they’ve tested positive for the infection. Given the number of people they see daily, the deliverers are probably among those at greatest risk of exposure, so they do need to be careful. If we can minimize unnecessary food delivery, we should.

Are there ways to reduce the risk to both customers and couriers?

Dr Stephen Morse, epidemiologist: It’s impersonal, and perhaps seems extreme, but a food delivery could be left in front of the door (and a tip left similarly for the delivery person), much as we do with other packages, so there’s no need for face-to-face contact. There may be transmission through inanimate objects, which we can try to minimize with good hand hygiene.

If the no-contact approach makes for too impersonal an interaction, keeping some distance (3-6ft, arm’s length if both delivery person and recipient extend their arms?) is an alternative to consider. Delivery people should be washing their hands or using a suitable hand sanitizer after making deliveries. Along with healthcare and law enforcement/fire personnel, that may be a good group for more intensive testing.

Is coronavirus transmissible via food or food containers?

Tsai: The early evidence suggests that the virus is inactivated by heat. So I think cooked foods minimize the risk of any transmission from the food itself.

I don’t have any data to be able to say yes or no regarding food containers. But again, I think it’s a good idea until we get more information to still maintain some vigilance. So it’s not a bad idea to wash your hands before you look through containers and potentially to wipe down some of the exterior surfaces. That’s erring on the side of caution. But I think in this time of uncertainty, it’s the prudent thing to do.

Is it ethical to order food online?

Carissa Véliz, ethicist: Society always relies on a minority of people to carry out risky or unpleasant jobs that not everyone is willing to do. To be ethical, ideally, those people should be paid more than others who have more comfortable jobs.

Try to do your best. If you order, treat couriers kindly and convey your ethical concerns to companies. Ask if workers’ jobs are being made as safe as possible, and whether they can take sick leave. If you boycott, make sure companies know why you’re doing it, otherwise it won’t have the desired effect.

And suppose you order from a family business where they are careful towards their workers and so on, then it’s not clear to me that that it’s unethical at all. On the contrary, one concern is that small businesses will go under during this time, and that will be terrible for the economy as a whole and for families too. So we have to balance it.

Morse: I think the real ethical questions are in the personnel policies. These delivery people do not get any paid sick leave and in fact, may not have any income if they’re not working. If they’re sick, or test positive, can they stay home until they’re recovered and no longer infectious?

What do couriers want people who are ordering in to know?

Lauren Casey, gig workers organizer: In general, consumers aren’t aware that many, if not most, of the fees they are paying don’t actually make it back to the worker, when they interact with the gig economy. So be careful making any assumptions about what fee the worker is being paid.

These workers need good compensation especially because they don’t have access or good access to benefits like paid time off or unemployment insurance. So it doesn’t automatically make you bad if you order in.

Wilfred Chan, courier: Whether or not you order won’t change the calculus for workers who have no choice but to do it either way. So the best you can do is be considerate. Here’s how:

Tip – that makes a huge difference. In New York, $2 is really the bare minimum, $5 is OK, but in this situation I really think $10-$15 would be fair considering the danger of every single trip.

Social distancing – delivery apps now provide the option to ask for a no-contact drop-off. Whether you use an app or call over the phone, make sure the courier can drop it off in the lobby or outside the door and that will minimize the risk to both of you.

Be considerate – If there are delays or mistakes in the order, please just forgive the delivery worker, they are under a lot of pressure right now. Please don’t give them a one-star rating that could jeopardize their employment.

Contributors: Lauren Casey, Gig Workers Rising, organizer; Wilfred Chan, courier; Stephen S Morse, professor of epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University; Thomas Tsai, assistant professor at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute, surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Carissa Véliz, practical ethicist, University of Oxford.


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