As soon as she opened the door, the customer started sneezing and coughing. She didn’t sneeze directly on the food delivery driver, but “it was close enough that I could breathe it in,” said the DoorDash employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job. When he handed the sick woman her food, the driver briefly touched her.
“I know this sounds trivial, but literally the tip of my pinkie finger touched her, and I drive a stick shift. I drove the whole way home with my damn pinkie finger stuck out toward my passenger seat. I didn’t want to make contact with jack.”
The DoorDash driver said he sanitized his hands in the car, but then immediately drove home and washed his hands “like 30 times.” The incident has forced the North Carolina man to think about how easily it would be to spread the coronavirus if he had indeed become infected from the sneezing and coughing customer. He figures he delivers between 20 and 30 meals a day to homes; he also enters almost as many restaurants daily, touching door handles and counters.
“If I were in a position of authority, I would personally say that food delivery should be shut down nationwide, and that’s just my opinion,” he says. “Obviously, I would not want to see that as a driver.”
Despite the potential risks of transmitting disease by food deliveries, though, experts say it’s still a good option for diners who are trying to avoid crowds. “I don’t think food delivery services are particularly risky,” said Amesh Adalja, a physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s a good way to do social distancing, which is especially important for the elderly.”
Public health recommendations for social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus dovetail with food delivery companies’ “contactless” options: Uber Eats, DoorDash (and sister company Caviar) and Postmates are telling customers that they can have their deliveries left on the porch, doorstep or another requested area. Some are even developing new products to make the process easier.
As for other things drivers and customers should do to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus? It’s a refrain we’re hearing just about everywhere: “Just wash your hands a lot and don’t touch your face,” Adalja said.
The DoorDash driver said he’s seen his deliveries increase by 25% to 30% in recent weeks, though he can’t say for sure if it’s all related to the coronavirus. It’s also tax-refund season, he added. The major food-delivery companies – including DoorDash, Caviar, Postmates and Uber Eats – declined to share data about deliveries.
The four companies are rapidly developing plans and protocols for drivers, who are considered independent contractors (although California lawmakers passed a bill last year to force the companies to treat them as employees). The companies are informing drivers to follow practices encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health authorities. Besides regularly washing hands for 20 seconds, that includes staying home if they’re feeling sick and keeping surfaces clean, including those in vehicles and hot-food bags.
The companies are also implementing new policies or stressing current ones. Some are even creating ambitious financial plans to support drivers who may be sidelined. DoorDash/Caviar and Uber Eats have implemented financial-assistance programs they say will compensate drivers who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, placed in quarantine and/or asked to self-isolate. Some details of these programs were still being worked out, but a spokesperson for Uber Eats said drivers will be compensated for up to two weeks based on their previous two weeks of earnings, once they provide documentation on their medical condition.
On Tuesday, Postmates said it has created a fund that will provide credits for drivers in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia to cover their doctor appointments and other medical expenses related to the coronavirus. Postmates drivers who have made at least one delivery in the past two weeks in the 20-plus jurisdictions will be eligible for the credit from a new relief fund. Postmates also announced a pilot program in San Francisco to waive commission fees for restaurants and other business that sign on with the platform. The pilot is an effort to help brick-and-mortar establishments that are experiencing a decline in business because of the virus.
“Nationally, one in four private sector employees lack access to any sick leave at all,” Vikrum Aiyer, Postmates’ vice president of public policy, said in a statement. “While our ongoing campaigns in California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois seek to modernize 20th century laws to fit 21st century work for independent workers, now is the time to put aside the politics of the gig economy and work with all stakeholders to develop creative and meaningful emergency support for front line workers who may be exposed. It’s the right thing to do.”
The Washington Post’s Emily Heil contributed to this report.