According to a social epidemiologist, lives are at stake, and policy needs to change.

By Regan Stephens
Updated March 06, 2020
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This morning, I got an email from my daughter’s school, reminding the community to wash hands frequently, call the doctor if you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms, and, please, for the love of god, stay home if you’re sick. For many of us, self-quarantine is an inconvenient reality of COVID-19, but for most of the country's restaurant workers, staying home is an unaffordable luxury.

Since December 31, when the first case of COVID-19, aka coronavirus, was detected in Wuhan, China, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been affected. Schools, offices, and shops have been temporarily shuttered, in hopes of preventing the spread of the virus. In mid-January, the US saw its first case, and as it’s continued to spread in the weeks since (there are now over 100,000 confirmed cases globally), local and state governments have been bracing for the worst. Even in the absence of mandatory quarantine, because the virus is transmitted via fluid droplet from the nose or mouth, one suggestion for slowing the spread has been “social distancing”—or maintaining at least three feet of space when interacting with others.

Julia Wheeler / Getty Images

The assumption is that we, collectively, can stay home, and that we won’t even hate it. We’re already pros at binging Netflix, ordering virtually anything off Amazon, and sustaining ourselves on a steady stream of Seamless provisions. But the problem, of course, is what happens to the people preparing and delivering that food?

While there’s no federally-mandated sick leave policy, in Washington state, where the first case of the virus in the United States was reported, an initiative that went into effect in January 2018 made it mandatory for all employers to offer paid sick leave to employees. (They’re able to accrue about seven days a year.) But as the virus continues to spread across the country, now in California, New York, and, as of this morning, Maryland and Pennsylvania, there are some 15 million workers across the country who could also be impacted.

A representative from the National Restaurant Association told me in an email that state and local health departments have policies that require sick employees to stay home. A guideline that the NRA created notes, “It is highly recommended that any employees who are showing flu-like symptoms should be excluded from the operation until they are symptom free.”

The problem is, being "excluded" from the operation, for the vast majority of food service workers, means not getting paid.

Faced with the possibility of missing a paycheck could mean that many workers who are experiencing symptoms—which the CDC reports can show up between 2 and 14 days after exposure, and might include fever, cough, and shortness of breath—just come to work anyway.

As Amanda Mull outlined in a recent piece in The Atlantic, for most food service workers who are sick, the thought of staying home is “a nearly inconceivable luxury.” Maybe it takes a pandemic for the industry to shift.

According to social epidemiologist Carolyn C. Cannuscio, an associate professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, controlling an epidemic requires an enormous amount of social cooperation from governments, institutions, and individuals. “For small businesses, the disruptions will be significant, as customers stay away and as workers get sick,” she says. “Paid leave will be costly, but it is likely to pay multiple dividends.”

On average, Cannuscio says, every person who is infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 will infect two other people, and could be even higher in high-contact professions, like food service. “This presents a risk both to the public and to workers," she says. "Once a chef or server comes to work sick, the rest of the staff—working in close quarters over long shifts—is basically trapped. So are the customers.”

I reached out to dozens of restaurant reps this week, wondering if any would be offering workers extra paid time off as we face what seems to be the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic in the US. I heard back from only a handful, and the majority reported no change in policy. In fact, the ones who had supportive healthcare policies for their workers were, shockingly, small businesses, including one BYOB in Philadelphia. (The small restaurant group behind Frasca Food & Wine and Sunday Vinyl in Colorado offers two days of paid sick leave for hourly employees, even though the state doesn’t mandate it.)

When restaurants and food service businesses offer paid sick leave, they protect their workers and allow employees to comply with the crucial guidance to stay home.

“That is one of the few defenses we have against this disease," says Cannuscio. "It's not hype—lives truly are at stake. I hope we will have prompt policy action to protect both workers and employers, so that staying home is a viable option.”