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COVID-19

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‘Additonal layer of protection’: Many food handlers take voluntary steps like gloves, masks

Harris Ho takes an order at his family’s Happy Tummy Grill from Boeing shuttle driver Fred Olander near a Boeing production plant Tuesday in Everett. Ho’s restaurant reopened a day earlier after a one-month closure because of the coronavirus outbreak. The business applied for economic relief, but they have not yet been approved for any. Boeing this week is restarting production of commercial airplanes in the Seattle area, putting about 27,000 people back to work after operations were halted because of the coronavirus. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Harris Ho takes an order at his family’s Happy Tummy Grill from Boeing shuttle driver Fred Olander near a Boeing production plant Tuesday in Everett. Ho’s restaurant reopened a day earlier after a one-month closure because of the coronavirus outbreak. The business applied for economic relief, but they have not yet been approved for any. Boeing this week is restarting production of commercial airplanes in the Seattle area, putting about 27,000 people back to work after operations were halted because of the coronavirus. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

When you get a restaurant’s takeout or delivery, you might notice that many food handlers are wearing masks. Some aren’t, but they’re social distancing.

Local food safety experts said there aren’t any changes in food handler requirements in the wake of the pandemic, just that restaurants are following federal and state voluntary COVID-19 precautions as they provide food.

Spokane Regional Health Department members said food establishments are taking the extra steps to ensure safety for their workers and customers.

“At this point, it’s not a mandate for anyone to wear a cloth face covering or mask; it’s just considered an additional layer of protection,” said Steve Main, SRHD food safety program manager.

“The guidance is to wear a cloth face covering out in public, and we actually do not recommend that anyone use those surgical or N95 masks that are really needed by medical staff and emergency responders.”

Also, federal experts are telling U.S. residents they don’t need to worry about the meal itself. The Food and Drug Administration’s current statement says, “There is no evidence to suggest that food produced in the United States can transmit COVID-19.”

National experts in infectious disease and food safety say that determination is based on decades of research on other coronaviruses, which were first identified in humans in the 1960s.

In the Spokane region, many restaurant workers who interact with the public are following recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent spread of COVID-19, Main said.

The CDC guidance also includes 6 feet of social distancing, frequent hand-washing and not touching your face, he said.

Do cloth face coverings limit exposure? Evidence suggests it helps reduce infection from particles going into the air from the person wearing the face covering, Main said. It generally does more to protect those around someone who might have COVID-19 without the symptoms, he said.

Additionally, the state’s Department of Health is recommending food workers use plastic or vinyl gloves instead of nitrile gloves, the latter of which are needed by health workers.

“Nitrile gloves are worn by those in health care settings and are resistant to chemicals,” Main said. “However, they’re in high demand. The state Department of Health says, where possible, that food workers use vinyl or plastic gloves instead so medical workers have adequate supplies.”

SRHD has asked that restaurants do an increased amount of cleaning for surfaces if the eatery has a number of visitors who come inside for takeout. That’s for establishments unable to adapt to meeting customers outside with orders, said Lisa Breen, SRHD food safety technical adviser.

Under the usual food handler requirements, restaurant workers who prepare food must wear a hair or beard covering only in cases of long hair, Breen added. If workers can tie back hair and beards are short, that step is not necessary, she said.

For wearing gloves, it’s only required in preparing food that will be served directly, such as sandwiches or a salad, Breen said. That falls under a rule of “no bare hands” contacting ready-to-eat foods, but it isn’t required for handling foods such as raw meat or produce to be cooked or washed.

Restaurant workers also are required to wash hands and change gloves after doing another task, such as handling money, she said.

Breen echoed that the food itself is safe to eat.

“At this time, there hasn’t been any evidence that you can get the coronavirus through food,” Breen said.

She said facilities such as grocery stores also have stepped up cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces because of a larger number of people passing through, and workers are making sure they’re washing hands often to help minimize exposure.

Some restaurants don’t have the traffic coming in, so they aren’t having to do as much cleaning other than normal amounts, Breen said.

“If they have consumers coming in, we ask them to evaluate the number of people coming, and if there are periods of seeing more people coming through, we recommend they do more cleaning and sanitizing,” she said.

Main said the department has had good correspondence with restaurants regarding guidance. “The guidance has been well-received, and things have been going well.”

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