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Restaurants throughout D.C. have been trying to make all the necessary adjustments to keep patrons and employees safe as they move through the phased reopening process. The city hasn’t always presented business owners with clear marching orders in a timely fashion, leaving them scrambling to sort out what’s a guideline or recommendation versus a rule that can be enforced. Restaurants were told phase one would be begin with two days notice. A similar situation could unfold later this week if Mayor Muriel Bowser opts to take D.C. into phase two on Friday. 

One source of confusion is silverware. Cork Wine Bar & Market server Karim Soumah thought the city mandated that restaurants swap out metal utensils for single-use forks and knives. Then, he says, he observed eateries, including The Smith, giving customers the option between both.

It’s an approach other restaurants are taking. HalfSmoke in Shaw lets guests choose between plastic cutlery or silverware. So too do the restaurants under the umbrella of Street Guys Hospitality, though the majority of the group’s restaurants are in Maryland and Virginia. Their D.C. restaurant, Ambar, reopens tomorrow. 

Founding Farmers isn’t making the switch. “Safety is paramount, as is sensibility,” says Farmers Restaurant Group co-owner Dan Simons. “We can wash glassware, plateware, and silverware in our high temperature dishwashers … We know that adding even more plastic to our waste streams is harmful to the planet and human health, since it ends up as microplastics and humans consume it.” 

From to-go containers to personal protection equipment, there’s been a significant increase in plastic waste during the COVID-19 pandemic, which concerns environmentalists. “Let’s focus on new protocols that actually keep people safer, rather than protocols that may just have the optics of safety,” Simons says.

DC Health’s phase one guidance for restaurants only says the use of single-use items “is strongly encouraged.” The mayor’s office confirms this. No enforcing agency will fine a restaurant for giving guests metal silverware. 

In its considerations for restaurants updated on May 27, the Centers for Disease Control also recommends restaurants use disposable food service items including utensils and dishes. “If disposable items are not feasible or desirable, ensure that all non-disposable food service items are handled with gloves and washed with dish soap and hot water or in a dishwasher.” 

But which is truly safer? 

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security focused on pandemic preparedness, reminds readers that COVID-19 is most commonly transmitted person-to-person through respiratory droplets.

“Common-touch surfaces are less likely to spread the virus,” Adalja says. “When it comes to disposable silverware, you may see some restaurants be encouraged to do that because it decreases the amount of common-touch surfaces. It’s one less thing that servers have to touch and dishwashers have to touch. But the impact is marginal.” 

He adds that the additional cost of plastic utensils is something to factor in. “Many restaurants are opening at a lower capacity level, which will decrease revenue generation,” Adalja says. “Adding another cost onto that will impact financial viability. Restaurants operate on low margins.” 

The virus is fragile and can’t withstand a trip through a commercial-grade dishwasher full of soap, according to Adalja. Dr. Sanjay Maggirwar, the chair and professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at George Washington University, agrees. “This virus is very sensitive of detergent, he says. “That’s why we wash our hands.”

Maggirwar also says that COVID-19 prefers attaching to plastic over metal. “The virus has more of an affinity to plastic-like material,” he says. “It has high chances of being on plastic. Metal doesn’t hold the virus that much.” And while the virus can stay on a surface for 24 to 48 hours, it’s not necessarily a risk the whole time. “The infectious time is less than 30 minutes.” 

Overall, Maggirwar and Adalja say they wouldn’t worry too much about utensils transmitting the virus. 

Soumah, however, isn’t sold. He’s concerned for dishwashers, bussers, and food runners who carry tubs full of dirty silverware and dishes, load them into the dishwasher, and polish them afterwards. “There’s a messy pile of germs everywhere,” he says. Soumah is unsure about how often restaurant workers should change their gloves and wonders if gloves serve as a strong enough protective barrier.

“The people who are most vulnerable are those who have been working [during the pandemic] because they haven’t had access to unemployment services,” he says. “It would be crappy if they’re the first people to get sick.” 

Admitting he’s not a scientist, Soumah still feels plastic utensils are the safest bet: “It’s bad for the environment, but you reduce human contact and potential for transmission.”

Photo “Restaurant Silverware” by DrChumley1978 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0