Neil Bingham, a carpenter in Cambridge, said before the pandemic struck, he had an incredibly busy schedule. So, he routinely loaded steaming vegetables, meat balls, beef stew and other food items into containers stacked by the hot bar at a local Whole Foods and took his meals on the road.
“Because it's quick, it's simple, and because of my job as a carpenter and handyman, I'm always on the go.”
Bingham says over the years he sometimes observed patrons sampling food with their hands and kids sniffling over salad bars. He said he was disgusted, though that never stopped him from returning to the self-serve counters. But when life returns to a kind of normal, Bingham said he is not sure if he will be among those lining up again at supermarket salad and hot food bars.
“Now I am definitely more vigilant,” he said.
Bingham is not alone. Until the virus struck, self-serve food had been a hot option. But some medical professionals say there are other, safer options, and luring customers back to hot bars, salad bars and restaurant buffets post-COVID-19 may not be easy. Supermarkets and buffet restaurants are likely to be just as cautious as their customers, experts say — the last thing any enterprise wants is for COVID-19 to be traced back to its place of business.
Dr. Elizabeth Talbot, deputy epidemiologist for the state of New Hampshire and a professor at Dartmouth, said the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is not food-borne. The concern is the counters.
“COVID-19 is transmitted predominantly by the person-to-person route through respiratory droplets," she said. "If respiratory droplets land on surfaces, then a person can come along and touch a contaminated surface and inoculate themselves within a short period of time after that.”
Dr. Robbie Goldstein, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said supermarkets should consider getting rid of self-serve food bars all together. He said there are safer options.
“Grab something that's already pre-wrapped and packaged, so that you're not worried how someone else may have touched that package before you got to it," Goldstein said. "And then wash your hands before you open up the package and before you eat anything. Avoid things like salad bars and communal areas where we can't guarantee everyone around us has washed their hands or everything around us does not have the virus.”
Last year Stop & Shop introduced hot wing bars at 187 locations in the northeast as part of a major modernization campaign. The wings were a consumer and corporate hit, according to Supermarket magazine. But whether wings and other hot food items will be served again is still up in the air. In an email to WGBH News, the grocery giant said, “When the time comes, Stop & Shop will follow the recommendations of local and national health authorities as well as the CDC to determine the reopening of our self-service offerings.”
Stop & Shop union members are lobbying for a reopening of the popular in-store dining option. Fernando Lemus, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, says hot food, hot wings and salad bars employ a lot of his members and he wants to see those services returned, with the proper safety measures in place.
Daniel Innis, a professor of marketing and hospitality management at the University of New Hampshire, compares the effort to what was required to get travelers back on airplanes after September 11, 2001.
“It took us a while to get comfortable flying again after 9/11," Innes said. "And it required the federal government and the airline[s] to put in place special systems to protect us, so we’d be comfortable getting on a plane and flying across the country again.”
Innis said it will take a similar Herculean effort to convince consumers that it is safe to dine again at supermarket hot bars. He says the current model will not work in the post-coronavirus economy.
“The food is put out, there is a staff person that does it, but then they walk away and go do other things. I suspect we're going to see an end to that model," he said. "But the model where you've got someone supervising the food all the time may well work.”
Innis says supermarkets and buffet restaurants will also need to dramatically increase sanitization of counters and utensils, consistent with CDC recommendations, but on a permanent basis.
Neil Bingham, the carpenter in Cambridge, is still undecided about where and how he will pick up food to go. But he endorses some of the suggested efforts to make self-serve food areas safer. He said he particularly likes the idea of someone constantly policing hot food and salad counters and is encouraged by what he has observed in recent weeks at his local supermarket.
“I mean, you walk in the store, there's wipes at the door, there's wipes throughout the store, and I see people using them," he said. "If they were using them in the past, I didn't notice.”