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Hand washing isn’t all that new an idea….

March 27, 2020

Last weekend Keith Irwin announced that his Old World Breads bakery was open and doing business – outside. Never one to turn down pastries served up in an unorthodox manner, I motored to Lewes to see for myself. And there he was: under a little tent at the corner of New and Nassau roads. The line of customers was much longer than it would have been normally, since everyone was standing six feet away from everyone else.

As I watched Keith kibitz with his customers, his loyal minions filled the orders inside the store. I was impressed that he and all his staffers were wearing food-handling gloves - some were even wearing masks. Though I pretty much expected that, I was even more impressed when I noticed that Keith changed into a new pair of gloves each time he handled customers’ money or credit cards. His concern for cross-contamination got me thinking that so many of the dire warnings about this ongoing health issue are nothing more than standard operating procedures for any properly run restaurant.

Cross-contamination is exactly what it sounds like: the unintentional transfer of bacteria, viruses, etc., from one substance (let’s say raw chicken, for example) to another surface (maybe a cutting board where you plan to chop lettuce). Cross-contamination is the No. 1 culprit in the investigation of foodborne illnesses. Though that might seem like simple common sense, hidden sources of cross-contamination can be overlooked by the uninformed, the uncaring or just someone in a rush.

Take the bathroom water faucets in a restaurant, for example. Though they might seem nice and shiny, remember that people touch them AFTER they use the facilities, but BEFORE they wash their hands. So the less vigilant will dutifully turn on the water and wash their hands after using the bathroom, then instantly re-contaminate their hands when they turn the faucets off. The problem can be made even worse when they grab the bathroom doorknob as they leave. All in all, it’s as if they never washed their hands to begin with.

The remedy to this double-whammy of germs is simple: When you dry your hands after washing, use the paper towel to not only turn off the faucets, but also to handle the doorknob. Savvy restaurant owners locate a trash can by the door for just this reason. Sadly, the problem is harder to control when paper towels are replaced by electronic hand dryers. In these cases, creative acrobatics using elbows, arms, the back of your hands and your shirtsleeves might be your only clean escape from the bathroom. I was thoroughly impressed when Touch of Italy in Rehoboth Beach installed special bathroom door handles that allow you to pull the door open using your upper arm. I’ve also noticed that more and more restaurants with electronic hand dryers are adding paper towels to minimize hand contact with obviously contaminated surfaces. Those critical precautions are not only for customers - they also apply to the employees who handle your food!

Another opportunity for cross-contamination lurks right where you’re sitting. When people pull their chairs or barstools closer to the table or bar, they usually do so by grabbing the underside of the chair to pull it forward. Bingo! You have just touched what every other person who sat in that chair touched. The fix? Use your napkin to separate your hand from the chair. Lacking that, at least spritz your now-contaminated hands with sanitizer before touching your food or utensils.

Grocery stores can be an obstacle course of bacterial and viral contaminants. Most stores provide antibacterial wipes by the front door for the express purpose of wiping down the grocery cart handles. Skip that at your own peril: Whatever nastiness is on those cart handles will now be transferred to the fresh fruits, veggies and other “ready-to-eat” products that you fondle during the buying process - not to mention the outside surfaces of cartons, bottles, cans, wrappers, etc. Same thing with the control panels for self-checkout machines. The moment you press the keypad, your finger now shares whatever lurks there with everyone else’s button-pressing fingers.

Another reason to not skip the hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes that (we hope) are available by the entrances and exits.

This crisis has forced critically thinking people to change their habits to protect themselves and their loved ones from cooties that lurk on publicly accessed surfaces. Sadly, there will always be a lazy few who will dismiss cross-contamination concerns as “too hard” or an “overreaction.” Sorry: Science is science, and it’s those very individuals against whom we must protect ourselves, our families and friends. The tools and methods are there. We just need to make it a habit to use them.

Over the years, virologists and other experts have warned that the great majority of colds and flu cases originate by touching your eyes, nose or mouth with contaminated fingers. Watch your doctor! He or she is constantly washing his or her hands and using sanitizer – and then donning sterile gloves. If it’s good enough for your doctor, it’s good enough for you.

Be safe! We want our restaurants back! And blocking viral and bacterial contamination at the source is a very effective way to do that.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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