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Getting takeout from a restaurant without catching COVID-19

You haven’t left the house in a month, and you’d kill for some Chinese or Mexican. Relatable! But as bad as you crave restaurant food, you don’t want to take a chance on getting infected with COVID-19. Also relatable.

I wish at this point I was able to say, “Here’s the good news!” Sadly, I can’t–getting takeout while minimizing your risks is such an elaborate, time-consuming process that most readers will probably quit halfway through this article and go back to cooking at home. But for those who are really committed to takeout, we’re here to help you through the process.

When ordering takeout or delivery, there are three potential threats:

  1. The transaction
  2. The packaging
  3. The food

Here’s the simple version of what you need to do to get takeout while avoiding infection from all three of those vectors.

  • Prefer delivery over takeout.
  • If you do get takeout, don’t get it from any place that requires you to go inside.
  • Call ahead and pay over the phone, if you can.
  • Always bring a mask and sanitizer, regardless of what your plans are. If something comes up, you may need that stuff.
  • Be mindful of airflow in your vehicle, and adjust any air conditioner, heater, or windows accordingly.
  • When paying with a credit card, disinfect before and after. When paying cash, let them keep the change.
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of effort safely getting the food out of the packaging and reheating it.

As we explain in all our other guides for how to do things without catching coronavirus, by far the biggest risk comes from interacting directly with others (the primary way SARS-CoV-2 spreads is through personal contact). Food risks are highest when it comes to the people, the packaging, and the food itself. Consider this your detailed guide to getting food safely.

A (lengthy) guide to getting takeout

Delivery is always your safest bet.

Delivery is the one method for getting restaurant food that lets you avoid the two possible contact points entirely. You can pay over the phone, then leave instructions for the deliverer to drop off the food and leave. As the guy says in Home Alone, “Leave it on the doorstep and get the hell outta here.”

But not every place offers delivery, so sometimes you have to go out. Before placing an order, scope out the restaurant. Whether you do this via social media or by giving them a call, find out what your options are for picking up your food with minimum exposure to other humans.

If you have to leave the house, tread lightly.

If you have to go inside a dining establishment to get your food, immediately cross it off your list. Even if the restaurant has distancing measures in place, the restaurant’s interior is still a pool of shared air. Remember, the virus survives in the air for up to three hours. It’s not worth the risk.

Restrict your restaurant options to ones that offer either a drive-through window or curbside service. Many restaurants in my area have had windows installed recently for just that purpose. That could be the case where you are, too.

If you can, call ahead to place your order and pay over the phone with a credit card. That will minimize your in-person interactions.

When you leave the house, no matter how carefully you’ve planned it all out to minimize human contact, always bring a mask and sanitizers. That way you’re covered even if you have more interaction than you expected.

Take precautions—even in the car.

On your way to pick up the food, be mindful of your air conditioner or heater, since it sucks outside air and blows it right in your face. Either turn it off, or at least set it to recirculate. Then, set it as low as possible without being overly uncomfortable. If your vehicle has a cabin filter, you can breathe a little easier.

If you go through a drive-through, you want to minimize your exposure as much as possible. Wear a mask, and consider pulling up further away than you normally would.

This is probably a little extreme, but you might also consider using some sort of stick or grabber tool to receive the food (which will likely come in some sort of bag) and to hand over payment.

If paying with a card, disinfect your card before and after the transaction, so as to not spread or receive any unwanted germs. If paying in cash, tell them to keep the change (they probably deserve it).

The exchange.

When you get your food assume the bag and any containers are infected and act accordingly. Ideally have a plastic tub in the passenger seat that you can deposit the food into, slap a lid on it, and go.

When dealing with curbside service, you want to make handoff arrangements before you arrive. If you can, have them place the food in your trunk, hatch, or truck bed. Hopefully, you can pay over the phone before you arrive. If not, crack the window as little as possible to give them your payment.

For these same reasons, I don’t recommend ordering foods that require careful handling in the car. In the Before, we sometimes ordered salsa or cheese dip with our Mexican food. But someone always had to hold the bag in the car to keep that stuff from spilling everywhere. We just don’t have that luxury right now, so save yourself a mess.

In any case, tip generously. Thank food service workers for putting up with what they might see as your overly-paranoid nonsense. People in food service are literally risking their lives by going to work right now, and many are having a hard time.

Deal with the packaging. 

You have the food, but now you have to get it out of its bags and boxes. That presents a logistical nightmare. Again, the virus can survive on surfaces for days. You can hose down a cardboard box of cornmeal with disinfectant, but you probably don’t want to Lysol your lo mein.

In order to eat, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves, dive in, and tackle the problem. That means baking your food.

  1. Heat your oven to a low setting, like 175F.
  2. Set up a workspace that will be easy to disinfect.
  3. Put on gloves if you like, as long as you understand how to safely remove and dispose of them.
  4. Get oven-safe containers and put them on your workspace. Your food will go in or on these.
  5. Get a trash bag to put the original food containers in.
  6. Get your hand sanitizer and/or soap and water ready.

Reheating the food

OK, now you’re ready. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE as you perform the following steps:

  1. Put the food on your work surface. Dump the food out of the containers into the oven-safe containers.
  2. Throw the bags and plastic food containers in the trash. Also throw away any included plastic cutlery unless you don’t have your own.
  3. Either throw out condiment packets or disinfect them.
  4. Wash and/or disinfect your hands.

Now you’re ready to take the final step, which is dealing with any virus that may be on your food itself.

Believe it or not, the least risky factor in this whole debacle is the food itself, because the coronavirus is believed to not be able to survive past 70C or 167F. And a recent study, which has not been peer-reviewed, claims that 92C (198F) for 15 minutes is required.

Here’s what Felicia Wu of Michigan State University has to say:

Yes, it is generally safe to order and eat takeout food, if you can trust the overall safety practices of the restaurant. Cooked food is usually free of pathogenic microbes; the only danger is if food workers somehow coughed or otherwise transmitted infected droplets to the food after it was cooked and before it was packaged for takeout. There is some risk to raw, uncooked foods if anywhere along the handling chain an individual who was infected with SARS-CoV-2 coughed or otherwise transmitted droplets onto the food.

The smart thing to do is to gently reheat your food. This is a good food safety practice anyway, since other germs can always multiply in your food between the kitchen and your table.

If you have an instant-read thermometer, you want to aim for the aforementioned 70C (167F). If you’re especially worried, make that 92C (198F). Otherwise, just leave the food in the oven for a few minutes and let it get good and hot.

The reheating advice has two important implications for what you order and how you order it. First, forget raw or undercooked foods. No salads, salsa, or sushi. On burgers and sandwiches, tell them to hold the lettuce and other raw veggies. You need to reheat all of the food you ordered, so any part of your order that won’t stand up to a trip through the oven will have to be thrown out.

Second, if you’re ordering steak, get it cooked one step below where you want it. You’ll be heating it up, which will cook it just a little bit more. If you want medium rare, get rare, and if you want it well done, order it medium. That way, you’ll end up with roughly the level of doneness you want after the reheating.

Sounds easy, right?


    • Kristie

      Microwaves aren’t mentioned regarding heating the food and killing pathogens. Are they not as efficient at this?

      6 |
      • Josh CentersContributor Kristie

        A microwave is fine as long as you get the food hot enough, I’m just a food snob who thinks the oven usually does a better job 🙂

        8 |
      • Kristie Josh Centers

        lol OK, thank you. 😀

        6 |