“At a place like McDonald’s, part of the reason they’re so successful is because they’ve got systems in place to ensure they can produce food quickly and safely. It’s a production line basically,” Professor Vally said. “The extra risk is person-to-person transmission. But as it’s a system-based method, it in theory makes it easier for them to adapt to the current situation.”
Victoria’s “McCluster” has brought the fast food industry under scrutiny, with 12 COVID-19 cases linked to Fawkner McDonald’s, including four workers and eight close contacts.
One of those contacts worked at Craigieburn McDonald’s, which shut for cleaning on Friday.
The closure of 12 McDonald’s venues on Sunday was due to a delivery driver visiting while asymptomatic, with 1000 McDonald’s employees asked to stay away from work for 14 days as a precaution.
A Domino’s restaurant also closed on Sunday after an infectious person visited the store.
The Victorian Health Department has consistently stated the risk of spreading coronavirus via food or packaging was extremely low.
Professor Vally said this was due to tight food hygiene measures and because the heat of cooking food would kill viruses. In late March McDonald’s closed all 1400 restaurants in the UK and Ireland, citing the safety of employees and customers.
McDonald’s workers in the United States have recently threatened strikes due to safety concerns.
In Australia, customers have been banned from dining in. A McDonald’s spokeswoman said workers were following “strict” cleaning and hygiene processes including wearing gloves, regularly washing their hands and “increased cleaning” of surfaces and touch-screen machines.
Fast Food and Retail Workers Union secretary Josh Cullinan said the view of fast food outlets as being structured, safer employers was a “common misconception”. He said the high proportion of teenage workers often voided hygiene processes.
“At McDonald’s 80 per cent of their workforce is under 21. They’re not used to workplace safety precautions,” he said.
“When a manager says, go and work in the drive-through, it doesn’t occur to them to wash their hands between every transaction, or they’re too nervous to mention it.
“[Fast food outlets] are not a wet market or an abattoir, but if we’re concerned about schools or general retail environments, McDonald’s is out there in front.”
Professor Vally said customers should use drive-through where possible and avoid ordering through touch screens.
However, for customers “there’s no real difference between what’s happening at McDonald’s and what will happen at cafes in a couple of weeks [when they open to 20 people in Victoria]”, he said.
“Because we’ve done so well, we don’t need to be shutting down or avoiding places just because there’s some small risk associated with it.”
Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen on Monday compared fast food workers’ risk of infection to teachers, police and construction staff who work on site.
Professor Catherine Bennett, Deakin University’s chair of epidemiology, said fast food restaurants benefited from the job involving low physical exertion and being able to stagger lunch breaks.
“I think some food places are probably better than [offices] because hygiene is such a key part of their compliance with food safety,” she said.
With Aisha Dow
Michael is a reporter for The Age.