The dark-haired man stood six feet away from me, but his eyes urged me to come closer. It had been days—no, more than a week—since I had gotten any. I wanted it so badly. My mouth was dry; I felt almost dizzy. He nodded, as if daring me to ask. And before I knew it, I had ordered a large, iced, half-caf, whole milk, churro-flavored latte. With tip, it was seven dollars.
Even though nothing brings me more joy than exchanging money for decorative steamed milk, my coffee purchase felt a little nightmarish to me, too. Trying to figure out how to shop during Coronavirus is so fraught I wasn’t sure if I was holding a cup of drinkable virus, a fun indulgence, a stake in a teetering local business, or an oversized portion of my shrinking savings.
Wrapped up in my coffee concerns are more persistent, uncomfortable questions about how to generally shop and consume during coronavirus: Are items brought in from outside our homes or handled by delivery people, even safe? How can we help local businesses? What do we owe to the delivery people whose bodies are on the line while the rest of us barricade ourselves indoors as much as possible? Even the pros are dealing with these concerns: “These are hard questions that I’ve found myself struggling with as well,” says Rima Basu, an assistant ethics professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Right now, when it comes to spending, whether it’s a cup of coffee or a bag of essential groceries, or a new pair of sweatpants, confusion reigns. Amazon, InstaCart, and other shopping services that offer home delivery say they are hiring hundreds of thousands of workers to match demand. Local businesses are folding. Some Republicans argue that millions of deaths may be a fair price to pay to boost the economy. And some people are spraying down junk mail with Lysol. Let’s look at the safety and ethics of shopping during coronavirus.
Can coronavirus live on packages and mail?
According to the World Health Organization, it is safe to receive packages. “The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low,” the organization writes. You can catch COVID-19 by touching a surface that a person with the disease has coughed or breathed on, and then touching your face, the WHO says, but it’s fairly low risk.
The CDC shares the same caution, but adds, “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Neither the CDC nor the WHO has recommended disinfecting packages, only washing your hands regularly. But it might not be totally crazy to do so—a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that coronavirus becomes undetectable over 24 hours on cardboard. A different study, released by the CDC on Friday that showed that the virus lived on surfaces of cruise ships for up to 17 days. Those alarming findings grabbed headlines, but the CDC report added that it’s not known “whether transmission occurred from contaminated surfaces.” Essentially—packages are very low risk. But experts still don’t know as much about this disease as they’d like to.
Can coronavirus live on food?
“Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food,” the CDC writes. “In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.”
Is it ethical to use delivery services?
“In ordering by delivery, we are asking already economically vulnerable people to also make themselves physically vulnerable for the safety of others (that is, more physically vulnerable than usual)” Basu says. “For this reason, I do believe that we should limit ourselves to ordering just what is necessary.” If we want we're asking others to make sacrifices for us, we need to make sacrifices, too. “We must ask ourselves with each purchase, is it worth the risk we’re imposing on the workers tasked with bringing us that purchase? For essential goods, yes. For a Darth Vader toothpick dispenser, no.” We also have to consider the number of people who depend on delivery services. “In increasing the risks for delivery workers we also increase the risks for those people who have no choice but to use delivery."
The grocery delivery service Instacart announced this week that it will hire 300,000 people, who will hand-deliver food to people who are staying inside. Amazon and Walmart each said they will hire 100,000 more workers. These low wage workers often don’t have access to a safety net, or reasonable benefits. Instacart workers, for example, make $10, maximum, per assignment, before tip. Postmates guarantees workers less than $4 per trip. On that kind of income, is it really likely that a sick worker would be able to take the day—or 14 days—off? “I can’t self-quarantine because not working is not an option,” Mariah Mitchell, a driver for Postmates, DoorDash, Uber Eats, Instacart, and Lyft wrote in the New York Times this week. “If I don’t make enough money, I can’t feed my children for the next six weeks. I’m not stopping, fever or no fever.”
How can I most ethically use delivery services?
“It’s important to start by asking, if I were a delivery worker, what would I want in this situation?” Basu says. A good start is to tip your delivery person the way you would want to be tipped if you were in their shoes, and to leave them a positive review if applicable. But as consumers, we can also push for systemic changes. “If it’s the case that relying heavily on delivery services is an effective means to limiting the number of people who could be potentially exposed to the virus, that means that our testing resources should be prioritizing exactly these kinds of essential workers,” Basu suggests. “Further, they should be provided with the appropriate personal protective equipment given the risks they’re exposing themselves to—and potentially exposing others to given the nature of their work.”
Is it important to support local businesses?
Ethically, throwing your support behind the small guys is a great choice. Local and independently-owned businesses are under massive stress right now, and shoppers are getting mixed messages about what's considered essential purchases. Some might think buying a new pair of spring shoes is frivolous, while the independent store those shoes come from need you to add to cart. What not-so-essential items you buy right now is a personal choice, but many smaller businesses are adopting special measures to keep packaging and delivery ultra hygienic, if that's your concern. Coming Soon, a furniture, design, and gifts store in New York, is making sure packages stay super-clean without risking the health of employees. “To keep exposure at a minimum we have only one employee handling all shipping and our employee wears gloves and a mask while working with all merchandise incoming and outgoing,” say Helena Barquet and Fabiana Faria, the store’s owners.
In Seattle, smaller businesses are partnering to help each other not go out of business—trading yoga classes for consulting help, or offering cooking lessons to corporate groups. In Austin, a group of five drag queens performed live on Facebook and Instagram to raise funds for a beloved local bar. Almost everywhere, you can support your local bar or restaurant by buying a takeaway cocktail, which has to be at least a whisper of a silver lining.
Tip well, listen to the CDC, push for change, and go a little easy on yourselves—ethics professors aren’t totally sure what the right answer is, either.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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