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Food Delivery Companies Aim to Provide ‘Social Distance’ With No-Contact Delivery Options

Responding to COVID-19 concerns, food delivery apps are launching “no-contact” or “contactless” deliveries. But how does that work, exactly? 

A gyro at Souvla Patricia Chang

Across the city, workers have been asked to remain home, events have been cancelled, and San Francisco has banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, with a possible statewide ban on 250-person events on the horizon. For those eager to practice social distancing it might be more tempting than ever to order in — and food delivery companies are capitalizing on that urge with promises for “no-contact” drop off of order. But what does that mean?

According to the SF Business Times, in recent days San Francisco-based DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart have all announced drop-off delivery options, reportedly “borne from customer desires to minimize physical contact” and to show they their companies are “adjusting to conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.” It’s an interesting moment for food delivery companies, which were facing criticism from local lawmakers, chefs, and restaurants, but with the novel coronavirus, may be in demand.

Postmates was the first to officially announce “no-contact” delivery, via the company blog, in the form of an easy dropdown menu. “We know there are always people who, for health and other reasons, might prefer a non-contact delivery experience and we believe this will provide customers with that option,” the company said on March 6, alluding to — but not specifically mentioning — fears of viral transmission.

Via the Postmates app, when you go to check out, under “Dropoff Options,” customers can now choose between one of three dropdown options: “Deliver to my door,” “Meet me outside,” or “Leave order at my door.” Given the rampant problems with package theft in San Francisco, it’s probably wise to keep an eye on the front door.

DoorDash, which also owns Caviar, is encouraging customers to add their own delivery instructions by using an existing field in the app. For now, within the DoorDash app, when you go to check out, under “Delivery Instructions,” customers can leave a note that they’d like food to be left at the door. After the order has gone through, customers can also text the driver with a photo of the exact spot where they would like the food to be placed. That does rely on customers to write their own instructions and text their own photos. So it’s not as simple as ticking a box, or even a consistent policy, but for many concerned customers, it’s an option.

Coming soon, a DoorDash rep promised that the company is planning on introducing a new “contactless delivery” option, with a vague statement — “we are testing enhanced drop-off options for contactless delivery to be rolled out shortly.” A date for that option’s launch has yet to be provided.

Grubhub, which also owns Seamless, is also telling customers to personalize “Ordering Instructions,” but is taking it one step further, and encourages customers to contact drivers directly to “discuss delivery arrangements.” After a driver accepts an order, it is possible to text or call them, but there’s definitely some social awkwardness there: After all, one is indeed contacting an hourly worker without benefits and asking them to go into the world, retrieve food, and leave it without touching a customer’s door, ringing the bell, or speaking face to face.

Then again, the awkwardness might be on both sides. Speaking with the Washington Post, one DoorDash delivery worker says that contact with sick customers has them worried about their own health and makes them realize how easy it might be for drivers to spread COVID-19, with 20–30 visits to restaurants and residences a day.

“If I were in a position of authority, I would personally say that food delivery should be shut down nationwide, and that’s just my opinion,” the driver told the Post, even as public health experts like Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security scholar Amesh Adalja said, “I don’t think food delivery services” (even full-contact ones) “are particularly risky.”

It appears that some companies are heeding worker worries, however inconsistently. According to the SF Chronicle, DoorDash “has a task force working to develop support for its couriers,” and the Verge reports that Postmates has announced that it will pay for COVID-19-related doctors’ visits and medical expenses for its couriers, all of whom (as with all these delivery services) remain independent contractors who are not provided paid sick days or medical insurance. All the more reason, if one opts for delivery, to tip generously and often.