Is it ethical to order food delivery amid the coronavirus?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The coronavirus pandemic has forced large parts of the country to spend substantially more time at home as people practice social distancing to limit the spread of the virus. Unsurprisingly, this has caused a surge in demand for delivery services as people try to acquire the food they need without leaving the house.

Across the country, restaurants have become takeout-only businesses to stay afloat with their dining rooms shuttered. Food delivery services like GrubHub and DoorDash are scrambling to hire enough people to keep up with the spike in orders. Grocery orders were up 150 percent in March compared with the same period last year.

The system relies on an army of delivery workers to bring food from the store or restaurant to people’s front doors. These couriers face one of the highest risks of exposure to disease of any job, eclipsed mostly by medical professionals. But a large number of them are independent contractors who lack health coverage and other benefits. In March, workers for the grocery delivery service Instacart held a nationwide strike, demanding sick leave and protective gear like masks.

Why there’s debate

The situation poses a challenging ethical question: Is it fair to ask someone else to take on the health risks that come from spending time out in public when you’re not willing to do it yourself?

The answer, according to industry experts, isn’t cut-and-dried. For one, most health experts agree that the nationwide fight to limit the spread of the virus is better served by having a small number of people do food shopping for larger groups, rather than having everyone crowd grocery aisles themselves. The workers also rely on the money they get from deliveries. Choosing not to order could cost them — and the struggling restaurants that make the food —much-needed income.

At the same time, many of the most popular delivery apps have been accused of exploiting the workers and restaurants they contract with by taking the lion’s share of the income from deliveries. In some cities, delivery slots have become extremely hard to come by. Someone from a low-risk group taking up that slot may mean a person who can’t go to the store — either because they’re sick, immunocompromised or have a disability — misses out on the chance to acquire food they’re unable to get for themselves.

There’s unanimous agreement that anyone ordering delivery should acknowledge the burden the courier is taking on for the public good by tipping well, giving good ratings and making an effort to protect them from infection as much as possible.

What’s next

Some labor rights activists see the increased importance of delivery workers and others in low-paying “essential” jobs as an opportunity to push for better conditions and benefits. This could mean more strikes and protests as the pandemic continues in the coming weeks and months.


There’s so much demand right now, skipping delivery won’t cost workers any money

“If a gig worker relies on orders to make a living, not ordering could affect their ability to pay their bills. But the sheer volume of deliveries now makes that unlikely.” — Adele Peters, Fast Company

Tip more than you would in normal times

“If you do order via one of the apps, at a minimum, please, please, please tip your driver beyond generously. People are out there risking their health so you get that carton of chow mein!” — Luke Tsai, Eater

Delivery workers need money

“Right now, I think workers would largely ask you to please keep ordering. It’s essential for these workers to be able to survive. Our industry is definitely worried about people’s safety, including their own, but they’re also worried about survival and feeding their kids. … It’s not that they don’t think this is a scary time to be doing delivery, but they also need their jobs.” — Food labor expert Saru Jayaraman to Atlantic

Don’t use exploitive delivery apps; call restaurants directly

“Delivery apps should not be allowed to continue the same vulturous practices they deployed in a pre-coronavirus world. Until these apps actively start agreeing to commission caps, it's time to delete your delivery apps and let them burn.” — Khushbu Shah, Food & Wine

It’s unfair to ask low-income people to accept all of the health risk

“Those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs that enable us to work from home need to be honest with ourselves about whether we are bearing our fair share of the collective risk or whether our comfort is coming at too high a price to others. If we’re healthy, this may mean going to the grocery store ourselves rather than relying on others to do it for us.” — Ethicist Karen Stohr to Gen

It’s OK to be a little bit selfish in such extreme circumstances

“The buyer’s safety is earned by transferring the risk to the person making the delivery. … I understand the concern, but I also believe that in an emergency it’s okay to prioritize your safety and your family’s.” — Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg

Protect couriers by allowing them to do a no-contact delivery

“Social distancing is impossible if you’re expecting a delivery person to meet you at the door or to come in. To solve that, several delivery apps have introduced no-contact deliveries — meaning orders are left on the customer’s doorstep. … If it’s not the default but is an option, choose it if you’re physically able.” — Jason Del Rey, Vox

Don’t take up delivery slots if you’re in a low-risk group

“Personally, I’m inclined to save delivery appointments for those who are sick or high risk — at least until stores can build more capacity into the system.” — Joanna Allhands, Arizona Republic

It’s important to acknowledge the sacrifice delivery workers are making for the greater good

“It’s extremely important to be kind and considerate to your fellow humans right now, particularly workers whose jobs require them to be out in the world among crowds of people.” — Claire Lower, Lifehacker

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Getty Images