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story.lead_photo.caption Chris Kauffman picks up a take-out order on Tuesday March 24 2020 from employee Debra Patton at Smokin' Joe's Ribhouse in Rogers. Go to nwaonline.com/200325Daily/ to see more photos. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

FAYETTEVILLE — Existing health regulations will keep carry-out and delivered food orders safe from the coronavirus if those rules are followed, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

The department’s restaurant inspectors remain at work making sure food service outlets meet those requirements for their customers’ safety, according to a department spokeswoman. For instance, customers and employees are advised to keep their distance from each other until the food is handed off and paid for.

Inspectors also are making sure restaurants adhere to the new social distancing guidelines specific to the coronavirus to protect workers, the department said. Restaurant workers, customers and the inspectors themselves must all honor those guidelines to stay safe, according to the department.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered the shutdown of in-restaurant dining last week.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » nwaonline.com/coronavirus]

State regulations for restaurants include prevention of bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods, handwashing requirements and telling ill food service workers not to come to work.

“If the current rules are followed, it is believed that the risk of covid-19 transmission is low, provided the social distancing directives are properly implemented,” Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.

The department put its priority during this outbreak on inspecting the facilities that either serve a highly susceptible population or cook and cool large volumes of food for service later. Those facilities include buffets, larger restaurants and hospitals.

Health rules prohibit workers from touching ready-to-eat foods with bare hands. Gloves, tongs or other clean utensils are used to touch food itself.

“Since ready-to-eat foods are already packaged at the time of delivery to the customer, food workers are not required to wear gloves when completing a carry-out or delivery transaction,” McNeill said.

Paying for the food while 6 feet apart may not be entirely practical, she said.

“The food employees and restaurant managers should be exercising practices that will minimize person-to-person interaction while completing food purchases for carry-out or delivery, although there may be times when this is physically not possible,” she said.

The need for carry-out and delivery food businesses to follow food preparation rules and virus guidelines is glaringly clear to both workers and customers, said Rolf Wilkin, chief executive officer of Eureka Pizza.

“My employees feel very fortunate to have a job when so many of their friends have lost theirs,” he said.

Employees follow the guidelines and limit contact with each other and customers to the bare minimum needed to get the job done, he said. Those guidelines include frequent handwashing.

Customers also understand the need for extra precautions such as closing down lobbies in most Eureka locations, Wilkin said. What’s more, they appreciate it. He was reluctant to close lobbies but did so at the suggestion of employees. One location in Bentonville still has an open lobby, but there’s a ribbon customers must stand behind while waiting to order.

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Customers on Tuesday March 24 2020 use the carry-out window at Onyx Coffee Lab in downtown Rogers. Go to nwaonline.com/200325Daily/ to see more photos. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

The response from customers forced to use the drive-through or stand away from the counter is appreciation at seeing his business take their health seriously, he said.

Wilkin said the concentration on health and safety has another benefit: the focus it gives.

“I’m sleeping better than I have in months,” he said. “Every other problem I ever had or thought I might have someday has faded while we deal with the problem at hand. You know where to put your attention.”

Simply Done NWA, a heat-and-eat meal delivery service based in Rogers, saw sales go up by about 20% after the outbreak took hold, co-owner Wendi Seidell said. The delivery service always kept contact with customers to a minimum but takes extra steps now, she said.

For instance, deliveries are left in coolers at doorsteps in those cases when the customer isn’t immediately available to pick them up. Those coolers were always disinfected between uses, Seidell said, but extra care is taken now. The business is also increasingly using disposable coolers, she said.

Deliverers were always required to wear gloves, Seidell said. The meals are left on the doorstep, and customers are notified by text if they are at home. The delivery worker will wait for a reply and often will watch from the vehicle to make sure the customer picks up the order before leaving, she said.

Health care workers and older people are the ones most responsible for Simply Done’s recent increase in business, she said.

The Health Department doesn’t regulate food delivery services such as Grubhub, which pick up and deliver take-out orders for customers. Delivery businesses are aware of the responsibilities they face during this time, said John Collins, spokesman for Grubhub.

“We launched contact-free delivery, which allows diners to request their food be left in the lobby or at the doorstep to avoid a direct hand-off for their safety and the safety of their driver,” Collins said. Grubhub shared resources to ensure restaurants and drivers follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe food delivery.

“We’re providing two weeks of support pay to cover medical expenses and loss of income for delivery partners whose health is impacted by covid-19.”

The Fort Smith Coffee Co. at 1101 Rogers Ave. in Fort Smith created a makeshift drive-through with traffic cones, traffic barrels and signs. Customers place and pay for their orders at open windows on one side of the business, and the order is delivered to their vehicle on the other side.

The iPad the coffee shop uses as its point of sale system is sanitized between every customer.

Kaity Gould, owner and operator of Fort Smith Coffee Co, said the system is working “pretty efficiently.”

“We have a lot of loyal customers who want to keep supporting us during this time, so this makes it very possible while still social distancing and maintaining that good gap in proximity to each other,” Gould said.

Print Headline: Food safety rules work against virus

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