Are self-serve drink stations really safe?

(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

Public health guidelines in a pandemic need to satisfy, at the very least, one basic criteria: Is a practice or activity safe?

Recently, Hoosiers got mixed messages from the state of Indiana regarding a popular thirst quencher — self-serve soda fountain stations. The state flip-flopped on its ban of those communal beverage areas in convenience stores. An executive order, issued May 1 by the governor, took effect Monday, forbidding self-serve counter drinks. Two days later, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office rescinded the restriction after understandable— but also predictable — push-back from convenience store associations.

Convenience store operators posed a valid question. In March and April, their stores remained open as essential businesses under the governor’s stay-at-home order to quell the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The convenience stores’ self-serve beverage stations were not restricted. Meanwhile, restaurants were ordered closed.

In May, as the state began a phased reopening of businesses and services, the convenience stores’ drink areas got lumped in with a ban on beverage stations in restaurants.

Thus, those stores would have to use an employee to serve beverages, if the businesses wanted to continue utilizing their soda fountain and coffee stations.

Store owners wondered — if the self-serve beverage formats were OK in March and April, why not now?

The Indiana Food and Fuel Association contacted the governor’s office, the group’s executive director, Scot Imus, told the Tribune-Star. Many convenience store customers were displeased, Imus said, and “a lot of clerks took a lot of abuse.”

Two days after beginning to enforce the self-serve drink-station restrictions, county health departments across Indiana were told by the state Department of Health to allow convenience stores to operate those amenities. The state had changed its order.

The displeasure of customers is not surprising. The convenience store operators’ confusion over a drink-station ban, after several weeks of state-approved operation, is understandable, too. The state acceded to those objections and did an about-face.

One question remains, though: Are self-serve soda fountain stations safe?

Clearly, state and public health officials originally saw risks in leaving open self-serve drink areas in both convenience stores and restaurants. The beauty of those facilities, in normal times, is their easy access, allowing customers to customize their own drinks. In a pandemic, that access can be a problem. Multiple people touch multiple items — cup stacks and lids, straws, fountain buttons, coffee pot handles, condiment packets and plastic stir sticks.

Coronavirus particles can linger on surfaces such as cardboard for up to 24 hours and steel and plastic up to 72, according to a study published in March by the New England Journal of Medicine. Given that situation, self-serve stations would seemingly require lots of tedious cleaning. Yet, the state has now green-lighted their use.

It is worth noting McDonald’s appears to be halting its popular self-serve beverage stations in its 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the fast-food giant’s plan for reopening its in-person dining states that “beverage bars will remain closed, or sectioned off and staffed, in restaurants.”

A company reopening guideline emphasizes that “during these unprecedented times, our number one priority is the health and safety of employees and customers, which guides our decision making.”

The state’s 180-degree turn this week on self-serve drink stations in convenience stores does not instill confidence that such a concept is safe.

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