Community Commentary/Opinion: Commonsense approach during COVID-19 pandemic includes paid sick days for restaurant workers
The best deterrent to coronavirus is common sense. One of the virus’s most powerful accelerants is forcing people to expose themselves to the virus to avoid dire consequences, such as eviction.
Many people are swayed from the commonsense approach to ignore the obvious while putting their faith in relatively ineffective techniques.
Food handling, especially in restaurant kitchens, is a glaring example. Various Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publications appear to provide various opinions regarding food as a transmission agent. That the CDC does not uniformly identify food handling as a transmission agent does not mean that food processing is immune from transmission.
Both the CDC and WHO point to upper respiratory infections being transmitted by food workers.
Per Dr. Taison Bell, an expert in internal medicine, infectious diseases and critical care at the University of Virginia Health System, the flu and the COVID-19 virus travel in the same method. An infected person sneezes or coughs or in some other way deposits the virus on a surface, usually in a wet droplet of some sort. Then another person happens along and touches the virus-packed wet spot.
According to the CDC, pre-coronavirus, food handling transmits approximately half of all colds and flu that are experienced in the U.S.
To claim that the food packaging is the culprit and that, if the packaging is clean, the diner will be safe, deals with half of the problem. The problem could be the food itself.
If food is not a transmission agent, why have virtually all salad bars closed?
They did not act because the CDC told them to. They acted and forsook sales because their common sense dictated.
The base problem is that many workers are not paid for their sick days at a rate that will allow them to survive. When confronted with the choices of being able to pay their rent by working or staying at home while ill and being evicted, many opt for paying the rent. Their earnings are pathetic to begin, and these circumstances make them more unfathomable. They go to work while ill because they must. Their finances are so threadbare that they must work to survive.
They are the victims of a system that forces them to work while sick, experiencing discomfort and possibly servicing as transmission agents. Not because they want to work. Because the system forces them to work.
Government actions cannot stop this within an effective time frame. Legislation mandating paid sick days was passed by both the House of Delegates and the Senate in late March. But it was killed on the last day of the 2020 General Session. It will not be reconsidered until the next session, which will be in 2021.
The federal government has passed a “paid sick days” law, which will benefit few workers. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act went into effect on April 1 and expires on Dec. 31. After that, it is back to no protections for the workers.
It applies only to employees of firms that employ fewer than 500 employees. Firms that have fewer than 50 employees can receive an exemption from the paid sick leave law if compliance with the law would jeopardize the business. The owners of the restaurants have their investment protected.
Very few restaurants have 51-500 employees. More than 95% of Albemarle County firms employ fewer than 50 people. Per the 2012 census estimates, 40,000 people in the Charlottesville Metropolitan Statistical Area (Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene and Nelson counties) are employed in firms that have fewer than 50 employees.
Given the direction of the economy, it is extremely likely that most small firms will claim that their business is threatened and that increased expenses will force them to close.
Government will not provide the solutions. In the meantime, many of us will fall ill. Some will die. These are the circumstances that demand that the people adopt techniques that will control the spread of coronavirus now. Today. In the next hours.
One feasible technique would be for the public to be provided with the information that will allow people to be aware of the risks of a particular act and to make their own informed decisions. This must not be seen as proprietary information. In the case of the food industry workers, this could occur by publicizing which restaurants as well as other food handling firms provide paid sick days to their employees. How many people have a realistic choice to make regarding sick days? This information should be included on every listing of restaurants that are open during this crisis.
The scientific or governmental answer may not arrive in time. The solution will come from each of us utilizing common sense.
Richard Lord is a Charlottesville-based photojournalist who has documented public heath issues and projects in 74 countries.