Across China, fast food chains are shuttering doors or launching “contactless” delivery services to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. In the U.K., the popular sandwich chain Greggs just announced that employees will receive sick pay if they test positive for COVID-19 and have to quarantine themselves at home. But are there any similar policies in place for chain restaurants in the U.S., where one in three adults eat fast food on any given day? We got in touch with the country’s biggest fast-food chains to find out.
There are comparatively few confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., but that’s expected to change. It’s likely that more people are infected but just haven’t been diagnosed yet, partly because they may not have visible symptoms. Public spaces like airports, schools, malls, and restaurants are obvious locations for COVID-19 to spread, and people online are already raising concerns about the food service industry, where employees often feel pressured to stay at work when they get sick. Plenty of waiters and kitchen staff risk losing their jobs if they take sick days, or are freelancers with no financial safety net. As of last year, only 14% of fast-food restaurants offered sick leave. And that’s before we get into the general financial barriers against affording healthcare or time off work.
In China, where confirmed COVID-19 cases have reached the tens of thousands, some cities are in lockdown. But people still need to eat, making food delivery services even more important than usual. Major restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut have implemented “contactless” pickup and delivery services, where customers make remote orders and receive sealed food packages without making physical contact with employees. McDonald’s and Starbucks employees also have their temperatures checked regularly to screen for fevers. But this is happening in a country where the government has mobilized extreme measures to slow the disease’s spread. By comparison, the U.S. government is reacting slowly.
We contacted America’s big fast-food chains to ask if they had any plans to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak: McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, Panera Bread, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Would they introduce incentives for infected employees to stay home, and were there plans for any new safety measures like contactless deliveries? So far, the only official response came from a Burger King spokesperson:
“We have been monitoring the situation carefully and looking to public health officials for guidance. They continue to advise that the risk to the public in the United States remains low.
Additionally, we are reminding employees, restaurant owners and team members that they should continue to observe normal health, safety and hygiene practices, such as regular hand washing.”
In other words, Burger King is not introducing any new safety measures yet.
Introducing new sanitation measures costs money, and shutting restaurants would be even more expensive. Without a serious PR scandal like a well-documented outbreak at a specific fast-food franchise, it’s unclear if these chains will introduce other measures.
Update 8:51am CT, March 26: McDonald’s will offer a limited menu and remove all-day breakfast during the pandemic, and it has separated its golden arches as a sign of support for social distancing.