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Should we stop sharing food at restaurants amid coronavirus outbreak? Experts say be cautious

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As the new coronavirus outbreak continues, you may be worried about sharing appetizers or splitting a meal at restaurants. 

Companies like Tim Hortons and Starbucks stopped accepting reusable cups in an effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Both franchises made the announcement last week following concerns about staff touching cups used by customers.

And on the extreme end, a restaurant chain in California is checking customers’ temperatures before allowing them to eat inside their restaurant, according to NBC.

READ MORE: Why coffee shops are banning reusable cups amid coronavirus concerns

Medical experts are apprehensive as well, recommending people be mindful about sharing food at restaurants to prevent spreading the virus. 

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“COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, and we know that people who have symptoms can certainly transmit the infection to close contacts,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of Toronto and the University Health Network.

“If people are sharing food, the virus may contaminate the food that they’re eating or on the fork or knife that they’re sharing. And that’s a perfect way to transmit this to other people.”

As of March 10, Canada has a total of 79 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with one death in B.C. Many other countries have reported cases, but Italy, Iran and South Korea have been hit hard by the outbreak, which originally began in China.

The virus is spreading quickly and has sickened over 100,000 people worldwide and killing at least 4,000 as of Tuesday.

How does it spread?

The novel coronavirus infects the lungs, throat and nose and can spread in two different ways, says Nancy Walton, a professor and director of the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson University.

The first is through droplet transmission from someone who is infected.

One is through being close to someone, and they’re coughing or sneezing on you, and a droplet gets around your eyes, mouth or nose,” Walton told Global News.

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“Or droplets get on your hands, and you then touch your eyes, mouth or nose.”

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READ MORE: Cough, kiss, touch — How the new coronavirus can (and can’t) spread

Another way COVID-19 can spread is through surface contact, Walton said.

When someone with the new coronavirus sneezes or coughs, the droplets can fall onto a surrounding surface. When you are sharing food in a restaurant, for example, the droplets can get on the food, plate, cutlery or table. If you touch that surface with a droplet containing the virus and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes, you can get COVID-19.

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Should we still go to restaurants?

Although medical experts caution against sharing food, they hesitate to advise against eating at restaurants altogether amid the coronavirus outbreak.

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If you do eat at a restaurant, Bogoch said there are general practices you should make a habit of to avoid getting or spreading the virus.

“People should be very mindful about having impeccable hand hygiene,” he said. “I think it’s also important now more than ever to have more of a social responsibility. If people feel unwell, don’t go out…There’s no point in getting other people sick. It’s OK to stay home if you don’t feel well.”

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What are the symptoms?

You may not know you have symptoms of COVID-19 because they are similar to a cold or flu, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. It can take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear after exposure to the new coronavirus, which is the longest known infectious period for this disease.

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COVID-19 symptoms that mirror flu symptoms include a fever, cough, runny nose and headache, according to a previous Global News report.

READ MORE: Do you think you have coronavirus symptoms? Here’s who to call first

A milder form of COVID-19, however, could be “somewhat indistinguishable” from the flu, Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News in a previous report.

Other symptoms include difficulty breathing, pneumonia in both lungs, chills and body aches. In more serious forms of COVID-19, the virus can cause bronchitis, kidney failure and even death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list of those areas can be found here). If you do travel to these places, officials recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and, if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

Visit full COVID-19 coverage on Global News.

— With files from Global News’ Rachael D’Amore and Olivia Bowden

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amanda.pope@globalnews.ca