As part of its safe reopening requirements, the state of Washington has ordered restaurants to keep a 30-day log of all customers who have eaten on the premises. This log will include email or telephone contact information, according to requirements announced Monday by Governor Jay Inslee. Restaurants must also conduct on-premise services at 50% of their capacity before lockdown. The state’s decision seeks to mitigate transmission of the virus and facilitate contact tracing of individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 so that exposed individuals can be tested and begin to self-quarantine.
According to Inslee’s reopening strategy, restaurants must meet several other government safety requirements and prepare a written reopening and operational plan. Under Phase 2 of Inslee’s strategy, which includes restaurant dining rooms, counties with less than 75,000 people that have no reported cases of COVID-19 in the past three weeks can apply to ease their stay-at-home restrictions. As of now, restaurants outside of the eight approved counties remain confined to takeout and delivery only.
So far, restaurants in other states that have begun reopening have generally followed federal guidelines, but Washington’s strategy is unique in that it requires a written reopening and operational plan. The Washington standards also ask that seated parties only interact with one employee during their stay. Parties are capped at five members, much less than most other states’ 10-guest cap. Parties must also sit at least 6 feet apart, and condiment stations as well as buffets and bars must remain closed. Compared to reopening guidelines in other states, Washington’s strategy is especially restrictive, perhaps because Washington had the highest absolute number of confirmed cases and the highest number per capita of any state in the country before the outbreak hit New York in mid-March. .
Closed restaurants, schools, and hotels have forced farmers to discard food while lines at food banks continue to grow. To solve supply chain challenges in our food system, the Department of Agriculture will buy $100 million per month of milk, $100 million of meat, and $100 million of vegetables and fruits from distributors and wholesalers. Food boxes of fresh produce, dairy, and meat will be sent to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need. New York will give the state’s food banks $25 million to purchase products made from surplus milk from nearby farms. The state is working with dairy companies Chobani, Hood, and Cabot to make other products with the excess milk.
To avoid wasting surplus milk, the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) have diverted nearly a quarter of a million gallons of milk to food banks thus far. Waste seems to be decreasing, as dairy farmers went from dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk each day to 1.5 million gallons, according to the DFA data. University students are also pitching in to keep as much food as possible from going to waste. James Kanoff at Stanford University and Aidan Reilly at Brown University founded a site called FarmLink that heIps farmers connect their products to food banks. More than 50,000 onions were saved in Oregon, and the transportation was paid for when the onions got redistributed to Los Angeles food banks.
The coronavirus has left millions of Americans without paychecks, causing mile-long lines outside of food banks. Almost one-fifth of mothers with young children say their kids aren’t getting enough to eat, according to a survey by the Brookings Institution. This rate is three times higher than in 2008 during the Great Recession. Democrats seek to increase food stamp benefits by 15 percent until the economic crisis passes. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have tried to reduce food stamp benefits for years, and when the pandemic began, the Trump administration aimed to establish new work rules that would likely remove more people from receiving aid. In current negotiations, Mr. Trump and his congressional allies agreed to a short-term increase in food stamp benefits, excluding the poorest recipients and five million children.
The congressional debate is not so much about the total number of recipients as the size of benefits. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, increases in size according to need. Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, noted that Republicans have supported big spending on other programs to moderate economic losses as well as bigger benefits for numerous SNAP recipients for the duration of the pandemic. Conway claims that Democrats are attempting to use the pandemic to install permanent food stamp increases.
In various cases from 2015 to 2018, Chipotle Mexican Grill was accused of serving tainted food and causing 1,100 people in the U.S. to become ill, according to the New York Times. The fast food company was subsequently charged with two counts of violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by “adulterating food while held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce,” said federal prosecutors. Chipotle has now agreed to resolve the criminal charges by paying $25 million in fines.
The federal charges referred to incidents of norovirus outbreaks, an easily spread virus that causes common symptoms of food-borne illness such as vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pain. Chipotle admitted to being involved in at least five food-borne illness outbreaks across the country from 2015 to 2018, several of which were due to disregard for food safety protocols. Since the 2015 events, the company has implemented new protocols and established an “Independent Food Safety Advisory Council” comprised of experienced, independent food safety professionals who provide ongoing guidance on best practices to ensure that food served in Chipotle restaurants is safe. Paying the $25 million food safety fine is the company’s latest step in making reparations for past missteps.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is facing increasing pressure to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply amid the coronavirus outbreak.
While experts note that the food supply is safe as of now, challenges such as limited resources and the closure of major food processing plants may pose a threat to the USDA’s ability to maintain food safety standards. Smithfield Foods recently closed two more of its pork processing plants in Cudahy, Wisconsin and Martin City, Missouri due to worker illness, and one worker at the company’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant has passed away. Two Tyson employees at a pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa have also succumbed to complications from COVID-19.
Consumer concerns have risen, but public health experts reiterate that studies have found no evidence that the novel coronavirus is transmissible through food consumption. Regardless, the USDA has been so overwhelmed with food safety concerns that it has only issued two product recalls in the past two months, much less than the usual amount. This lack of recalls has some industry analysts worried that COVID-19 may have distracted food safety officials to such an extent that unsafe food products have been purchased and consumed undetected in the past few months. The diminishing recalls may be completely unrelated. “I don’t think consumers should be too worried about the reduction of recalls. I think there’s typical ebbs and flows,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. Ronholm also notes that consumers have a part to play in ensuring continued food safety. “Consumers have to make sure they’re practicing some safe food handling practices at home. Washing their hands and separating fresh product from raw product, minimizing their risk as much as possible.”
Traditionally, food stamps or money from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was required to be spent when shopping in grocery stores. Those rules have been relaxed amid the coronavirus shutdowns. In a pilot program, several states had been allowing benefit debit cards for online grocery shopping, including Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, and Oregon. The USDA, which administers SNAP benefits, has now added Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, North Carolina, the District of Columbia and West Virginia to this program.
On average, low-income households qualifying for SNAP benefits are given $235 per month. This money must be used to buy groceries, but does not include delivery fees for online groceries, which must be paid separately. Currently, the only retailers in each state approved by the USDA are Amazon and Walmart, although Wrights Market in Alabama and ShopRite in New York have also been approved. At the start of this year, about 18 million households were granted SNAP benefits, but enrollment is expected to increase dramatically as schools and businesses remain closed and household incomes dwindle. Amid the economic turmoil, Democrats have pushed for a 15% increase in monthly SNAP benefits, and Representative Ilhan Omar (Democrat, Minnesota) has proposed legislation to include every state in the online SNAP program.