The coronavirus may be shutting down Los Angeles, but Debbie, a 56-year-old delivery driver for Postmates, DoorDash, Grubhub, and UberEats, still hasn’t slowed down. Though she relies on delivering food for a living, she also feels a sense of duty in helping keep her community safe and well-fed. But ever since California’s coronavirus shelter-in-place law took effect, Debbie’s noticed one part of her job becoming increasingly more difficult, frustrating and alarming.
She has nowhere to relieve herself, and nowhere to clean her hands.
“Restaurants are takeout-only now, but a lot of them have taken that to mean not allowing anyone into their restaurants. Which means, not only can we not use the bathroom, but we can’t wash our hands in between deliveries,” Debbie tells me.
Before the law was announced, couriers were allowed to pop into restaurant bathrooms when needed, usually without a problem. Ever since shelter-in-place, however, Debbie has noticed restaurants often “have a table or a person blocking the entrance, and couriers have to wait outside to get the package.
“You can ask to use the bathroom, but they’re gonna say no,” she explains. “Ever since this became a thing, I started asking, but they don’t budge.”
“This has literally been my main headache now,” says Paul, a driver in California. “Most restaurants have their bathrooms closed. I found one which has let me use theirs but it always depends on the employees who are on the clock at the time. There are no real public restrooms I know of.”
The state’s shelter-in-place laws don’t require restaurants to turn away couriers. Debbie says she’s confronted several restaurant managers about why they won’t let her in.
“Some say they’re ‘preserving the sanitary conditions for the staff inside’ — even though there’s, what, two people inside? Another said, ‘We’re not letting anyone in because we don’t want the transients to come in,’ even though that doesn’t really make sense either.”
Ruth, who drives in the Midwest, says this is “not an isolated incident” in California. She says these hygiene issues are discussed on her local DoorDash Facebook group. “I don’t understand why some restaurants are pulling this stunt,” she says. “Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face — these restaurants need us!”
Historically, drivers could pop into a grocery store, but that option is now off the table as well. “We can’t afford to lose time waiting in line to get into the market, just so we can use the bathroom — if their bathrooms are even open in the first place,” Debbie says. “So the question all the couriers are asking is, ‘Where do I go pee? Where do I wash my hands?’”
“I don’t want it to sound like people should stop ordering delivery, because then I’d be out of a job,” Debbie adds. “But I don’t know what the solution is, and it’s only going to get worse unless someone steps in.”
Of course, there are other measures to ensure sanitary deliveries. Couriers often travel with hand sanitizer or wear gloves. But Debbie points out that drivers can only employ those measures if they have the means to do so. According to Uber’s website, the company is “working to provide drivers with disinfectants to help them keep their cars clean,” but supplies are very limited. DoorDash is offering employees in select areas free gloves and hand sanitizer through a special “Dasher-only” store, but drivers are stuck with paying shipping fees under $5.
Either way, it doesn’t seem like people are very clear on how exactly to use gloves. “Some drivers are using gloves, which they’re also using on all the door handles and everything else,” Debbie says. “Others say they use a new pair for every delivery, but that means they’re going through tons of gloves a day, gloves that might be needed elsewhere.”
Debbie’s taken it upon herself to make a DIY hand sanitizer so she can keep her hands clean. Paul, too, stays hygienic: “I sanitize my hands and disinfect my car wheel all the time.”
But they say this wouldn’t be such an issue if couriers could use the more effective soap and water in restaurant bathrooms. “Not having restrooms readily available is very annoying,” Paul says.
And so Debbie offers a simple solution: Cities should put hand-washing stations, “like the kind they put at events near the porta-potties,” on street corners of restaurant-heavy intersections.
It’s not perfect, she admits, but it’s better than nothing. “Anytime something new comes, you have to work out all the kinks and everything and figure out solutions,” she says. “But unless you’re working in the industry, you’re clueless about how it actually operates.”
The hand-washing issue is just part of the bigger picture. Debbie and other drivers say it seems that no one is following any uniform guidelines when it comes to handling deliveries.
“There will be crowds of couriers outside restaurants, not following the six-feet rule. There are still restaurants letting couriers pour the drinks — which, just think about that, that’s the cup and lid touching different hands,” Debbie says. “Then, fast-food workers wear gloves, but use the same gloves to take your debit card, handle the bag, use their machines.
“It’s a mess,” she adds. “How come there aren’t simple rules to follow?”
These problems are well known, but many drivers feel they’re stuck in an impossible position. They fear that if they speak up, the companies may shut down delivery and cut their jobs. But if the customers get sick first, it will be worse for everyone involved.
In the meantime, this entire situation is causing a rift within a once-united industry.
“I hate to say it, but it’s almost like a slap in the face. Because yes, of course we’re delivering to make money for ourselves, but after a while, drivers establish relationships with restaurants. Especially when this all started, it was like, ‘We’re in this together, we’re going to deliver for you, you’re going to stay open,’” she says.
“But now I can’t use your bathroom, and I can’t wash my hands and your bathroom? Sure, they don’t have to do anything, but as far as I can tell, very few people are out getting takeout. Mostly everyone going to restaurants right now is a driver. So without us, they’d be closed right now.”