There are lots of articles trying to answer this question right now. Nobody can know the answer with 100% certainty until more research is done. The conclusion so far seems to be ‘it’s probably fine’. All we can do is look at the information we do have and decide the level of risk we are each willing to take.
'Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
There is a lot we don't know about coronavirus, but we know a lot about virology. We also have heaps of knowledge about food safety. I will present some of that knowledge here without sensationalizing. I hope it gives you confidence in the risk-based decisions you have to make right now.
Let's start with some basics about how viruses work:
Viruses can not multiply without a living host (e.g. you) and will begin to breakdown
Without a host, they tend to stay active longer on hard surfaces than porous ones
They are not destroyed by freezing
They are destroyed by heat
Most viruses are destroyed during cooking (165° F or 74° C)
They are destroyed/removed by proper hand washing with warm water for 20 seconds
It is fairly safe to say those fundamental facts also apply to COVID-19. Other factors do vary from virus to virus. That includes how they are transmitted between humans and how long they can live on different surfaces. Here is what we know so far:
COVID-19 is spread when droplets produced by coughing and sneezing touch the mucus membrane of another person (nose, mouth, or eyes).
It can spread from an infected person with no symptoms if they touch their own nose, mouth or eyes then contaminate another person. It may also spread if they don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom. This isn’t confirmed, but good practice to wash your hands anyway!
A similar virus to COVID-19 (responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2003) was not found to be transferred through food or packaging.
There are no documented cases of coronavirus being transmitted via food or its packaging. We have indirect evidence that infection can happen from touching contaminated surfaces. However it is not thought to be the main way this virus is spreading.
It will not be on food if food handlers are following usual food safety guidelines.
A lot of reports are coming out about how long the virus can live on different surfaces. An early study has found it can live up to 24hrs on cardboard and 72hrs on plastic or stainless steel without disinfectant. That is similar to the 2003 SARS virus. You might hear another study found coronavirus on a cruise ship 17 days after it was evacuated. This study was looking for traces of the virus's genetic material and does not mean it was still infectious.
So with all this information, can we order the dang takeout or not?!
This part is my (let's say expert) opinion. I believe it is totally safe to order takeout IF the restaurant follows basic food safety rules, you wash your hands at the right times, and you stay 6 feet away from everyone.
There is room for error here on your part and the part of the restaurant. Someone at high risk or living with a high risk person might decide not to take any chances, no matter how small. There are also obvious risks to going out in public for pickup if delivery is not an option.
Delivery companies are taking precautions to keep a safe distance for you and their employees. Some are waving delivery fees and/or waiving their service fee for restaurants. If you are ordering takeout, here are some tips to stay safe.
Choose a sanitary restaurant. Was the restaurant clean before the outbreak? If so they are probably still following all health guidelines now. If it was sketchy, I wouldn’t trust them to suddenly start following food safety rules now. You can also call them to see if they are taking any extra precautions.
Do not be concerned if staff are not wearing gloves or masks. Current guidelines are that only symptomatic people should wear masks. Gloves are only needed to serve ready-to-eat foods like sandwiches (think Subway). They do not need to be worn when preparing food that will be cooked. Gloves can provide a false sense of security. They can still spread viruses if they are not replaced often enough, and you still have to wash your hands every time you remove them.
Choose the safest foods for you. Raw foods are safe as long as the restaurant follows food safety principles. If you want some extra reassurance, order something that is thoroughly cooked.
Wash your hands at every contact. If you have to touch a door handle on your way home, don't touch your face until you can wash your hands or use sanitizer. When you take the food out of the packaging, wash your hands then eat. When you throw the packaging away, wash your hands again.
Follow the 4 steps to food safety HERE.
And there you have it! A summary of every reliable source I have gathered. There is a whole layer of ethical questions that are beyond the scope of this article. This is just information that was up to date when I hit 'publish'. There are lots of conflicting and alarmist messages around this outbreak. I hope this helped you feel sure of yourself with this one small decision in uncertain times.