Dining out during a pandemic

staff note

Livelihoods, economies and entire cultures have been affected by COVID-19. No longer do we live in days with mindless meddling; now, we must consider the effects of our actions, and how the presence of others might drastically impact our lives. 

It’s an understatement to say that our country has taken the implications of a pandemic to heart — empty shelves permeate through nearly all grocery stores while millions are left jobless, paranoia pushing the idea that we need to prepare for a semi-apocalyptic future immediately. But when the going gets rough and you’ve run out of options for a meal at home, your mind will undoubtedly wander toward the option of visiting a restaurant. 

During these troublesome times, however, the entire process of eating out can be considered taboo — a means of spreading the virus further and causing more damage than what has already been done. With so many local eateries facing a crisis, though, it’s become difficult (especially for me) to turn a blind eye toward locally-owned and independent establishments suffering from a lack of in-house dining options and resorting to take-out and delivery as escapes. 

It’s either that or making the decision to shutter, be it temporarily or permanently. Each time you opt to eat out at a time like this your risk your own life and those of others; COVID-19 spreads unpredictably, with each new infection arising from an often unknown source. Thus, it’s become dangerous to leave the house. We now live in perpetual fear that our choices may lead to someone obtaining the virus. 

Why, then, would someone gamble with their odds by eating out? I, for one, have always been a proponent of the importance of independently-owned restaurants and their significance within local cultures. Although the risks may be high, I do everything in my power to prevent someone’s dreams from fading into obscurity.

As noted by Kim Severson and David Yaffe-Bellany in a New York Times article, powerful chains and restaurant groups like McDonald’s or Darden (which owns Olive Garden, LongHorn and others) “have the resources to ride out a protracted shutdown.” But independently-owned businesses — your neighborhood taqueria, drive-in, eccentric eatery — are at a dangerous risk of shutting down with no chance of recovery. When you consider how many lives have been positively impacted by the presence of a restaurant, the reality of their disappearance becomes all the more frightening. 

These establishments employ single parents and provide them with a means of putting food on the table, allow a creative outlet for chefs looking to experiment with food and create an opportunity for meaningful interactions between individuals and restaurants. Duke student favorites like Pincho Loco, Monuts and Cosmic Cantina have been forced to reduce their operations to take-out and delivery only, shattering the traditional experience of sitting down, having a conversation with an employee or a friend with whom you’ll share a meal and absorbing the unique ambiance within the eatery. 

It makes sense to support these businesses in times of crisis: Years of perseverance and dedication resulted in the realization of a dream, giving life to your favorite eateries and restaurants. But given the risk of contracting COVID-19, how do we navigate the entire process of eating out when every time you leave your home there’s a possibility of interacting with someone who has the virus? The calculus determining our decisions to dine out now are incredibly complex. With it comes questions of ethics and human choice. 

First and foremost, rest assured that the likelihood of it been transmitted to you through food is significantly low. Research at NC State University shows that there’s a relatively low risk of contracting coronavirus from food or food packaging; there’s no evidence of either being associated with the transmission of COVID-19, and high heat process in cooking will likely kill the virus before it’s packaged up. 

The real issue is commonly-touched surfaces, which can carry the virus should they not be cleaned. But even this has a workaround — if you practice proper hand-washing after touching all surfaces involved with food packaging and directly before eating, then you significantly reduce the risk of contracting the virus. Should you ingest it, however, there’s little risk of the virus affecting you. Currently, there is no evidence to support the transmission of the virus directly by eating food that might inadvertently contain it. 

Complex as the issue might be, we must strive to support the dreams of individuals throughout our cities so that they don’t falter. Hesitation in these matters, however, is not unreasonable: Perhaps underlying medical conditions or extra precautionary measures have persuaded you to avoid taking any unnecessary excursions outside of your home. But for those who hope to see their local restaurants, institutions and staples withstand the most arduous test of our era thus far, your support can make a world of difference for local businesses struggling to make ends meet during this testing time. 

If there’s one thing you ought to maintain in your normal routine, it’s making an excursion to a local eatery. Your patronage could break the path from sustained operations to business failure. Don’t let coronavirus put an end to your beloved restaurants — make it strengthen the ties between yourself and your community and make both of you emerge from this crisis as better, more appreciative and more resilient entities.

Alex Leo-Guerra is a Trinity first-year and Recess staff columnist.


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