The Untouchables: Food Delivery Services Find Ways to Cope With Coronavirus Anxiety

As demand for takeout surges, firms have to get creative to limit the risk of contagion, and to keep their businesses alive

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Wolt delivery drivers, Tel Aviv, February 9, 2019.
Wolt delivery drivers, Tel Aviv, February 9, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israel’s restaurants were among the first and hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic, but, together with delivery companies, they have found increasingly creative solutions to keep on serving food. In some cases, they have even managed to increase their business.

A number of restaurant chains are now offering “deliveries without human contact” and advertising how they can prepare and deliver meals in near-sterile conditions. Hungry customers, stuck at home, are buying into the concept without asking too many questions.

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Restaurants and delivery firms told TheMarker that the only rules imposed by the Health Ministry to date require the delivery person to remain outside the customer’s home and to avoid direct contact. As to how the food itself is prepared, packaged and delivered, no directives have been issued. Health Ministry officials are not conducting any examinations, they say.

“We came out with the policy of ‘untouched deliveries,’ which actually began with our European parent company, before the Health Ministry issued its directives a week ago,” said Nurit Shaked, CEO of the delivery firm 10bis, which is owned by the Dutch company

“In addition, we’ve taken precautionary measures that we’re not required to under the rules – distributing protective gear to deliverers, such as alcogel, masks and gloves, and telling them not to stand near each other,” she said.

Shaked said the Health Ministry has not been in touch with the company, which is one of Israel’s biggest providers of take-out food. “Sometimes the directives aren’t clear and we try to talk to them about it, but we’ve never succeeded in reaching anyone,” she said, adding: “Of course, we understand that they are under a lot of pressure.”

At Wolt, another big delivery company, staff had been told to leave orders outside the customer’s door before the ministry directives were issued. The restaurants with which the company works were instructed to set up a designated place for delivery people to pick up orders where they don’t come into contact with restaurant employees.

“Deliverers are not equipped with gloves or masks because there’s been no directive issued like that,” said Danielle Rosen, Wolt’s head of marketing. She added that the company had allocated resources to pay a cash sum to delivery people who are ordered into quarantine.

Pizza Hut Israel said it also decided under its own initiative to provide its deliverers with alcogel, masks and gloves.

Shuttered restaurants in Jerusalem on coronavirus lockdown, March 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“The coronavirus is not yet widespread in the general population, so deliveries should be safe,” Prof. Itamar Groto, deputy director general of the Health Ministry, told TheMarker. “The ministry is now preparing more detailed directives on ways to prevent and reduce the risk to deliveries.”

As to the issue of contagion from surfaces, such as tables and motorcycle handlebars, Groto cited research published in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that just because the virus can survive for a certain period of time doesn’t mean that it remains contagious, he said. There has to be a minimum amount of the virus present for that to happen.

“Of course, it’s important in any case to preserve hygiene and wash your hands before a meal,” he added.

Prof. Neta Soffer Tsur of Midaat, a nonprofit public health organization, said there was as yet no research showing a risk of contagion from the delivery of takeaway food.

“Theoretically, the virus could be found on food products or on packaging, but it’s important to understand that the risk of contagion this way is very, very low,” she said. “The main path of infection is human-to-human contact. So, it’s preferable to order take-out food than to go to the supermarket where it’s more likely you’ll come into close contact with other people who carry the virus. This, of course, applies so long as the takeout comes from places that adhere to Health Ministry rules on handling food and prevent people who are sick from coming to work.”

Food delivery was a fast-growing business in Israel before the coronavirus struck. Figures from the market research firm Czamanski Ben Shahar & Company show it accounts for 17% of the restaurant and cafe market. As a result of the epidemic, its share is now expected to grow to 23%.

“In the United States, food deliveries constituted 25% of the restaurant and cafe market, even before on onset of the coronavirus,” said the firm’s Tamir Ben-Shahar. “Israel is lagging, but now, because of the growing use of technology and changes in consumption patterns due to the web, deliveries and online usage will be growing at a faster rate than we had previously forecasted.”

A sign calling people to stay home at a beach, Tel Aviv, March 20, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

The epidemic and lockdown have already brought a sharp increase in orders, mainly in the early evening hours and Friday nights, say businesses in the sector. Wolt, for instance, reports a 30% increase in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, 12% in Tel Aviv itself and a 15% rise in the Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon area.

“The increase in orders has caused us to hire hundreds of delivery people and for scores of restaurants that didn’t offer a delivery service until now to sign up with us,” said Rosen.

Wolt is worried that contending with the surge in demand will disrupt its plans to roll out its service to additional parts of Israel, she said, adding that about 100 restaurants are on a waiting list to use its service. Currently Wolt works with about 700 restaurants.

At 10bis, they say that the surge of takeout hasn’t made up the loss of ordinary business for restaurants, which are not allowed to serve sit-down diners. “Everyone is hurting a lot from what’s happening now,” said Shaked. Unlike Wolt, 10bis is still expanding to new areas, such as Netanya, Rehovot and Nes Tziona.

Pizza Hut, meanwhile, said its takeout and delivery business had grown about 40% since the epidemic’s onset.

“The biggest problem we need to deal with today is employees who are afraid to come to work,” said Gilad Venture, general manager of sales at the chain. “To cope with that, we issued an all points bulletin calling on all Pizza Hut employees from the past to come and work – not a few answered. We’re also allowing people to pay tips by credit card so there won’t be any interaction between deliverers and customers.”

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