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The Ethics of Takeout

How do we balance the seemingly contradictory virtues of supporting our local businesses and protecting workers during the pandemic?

Marjorie Ingall
June 26, 2020
Cindy Ord/Getty Images
A delivery person wearing a protective mask in New York City on May 21, 2020 Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Cindy Ord/Getty Images
A delivery person wearing a protective mask in New York City on May 21, 2020 Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The COVID-19 epidemic has brought a wealth of new ethical questions (and new texts, such as Jewish Law Decisions Related to Corona and Minchat Asher: A Collection of Classes, Responsa, Letters and Articles Related to the Corona Pandemic), all asking how, exactly, we should practice our Judaism and care for our country’s most vulnerable people in this terrible time. When it comes to the elderly, for instance, how do we balance the risks of contracting COVID-19 with the perils of loneliness and isolation? When it comes to commerce, is it better to go to the store (potentially exposing more individuals, particularly low-wage workers, to the virus) or to have our staples delivered (potentially taking still-scarce delivery slots away from at-risk folks who can’t shop in person)? Do we buy from Amazon (which mistreats its workforce) or from local shops (which may not sell organic, responsibly sourced, sustainable products)? For those with the option of eating out—New York City, for instance, has just entered stage 2 of the reopening process—how can we do so as morally as possible?

I asked a bunch of experts in Jewish ethics for their input.

Jennifer Thompson, Maurice Amado Professor of Applied Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement, Cal State Northridge:

When you’re applying ethics in real life, there’s never going to be a perfect answer. It’s always gonna be managing different goods, weighing what’s the best outcome. It’s not always clear what pikuach nefesh means, because there’s different ways to construe it. Taking the guidance of public health people is the first place to start. Last time I looked, contactless delivery was OK. Personally I would add that if you can steer your business toward places where you know they equip their workers with the best PPE and other safety options, that would be a good way to go. And tip very well, recognizing that these folks are working super hard and without them we’d be stuck eating our own cooking. You might look at the tipping thing as a form of tzedakah, in the sense of making sure to spread resources around when needed. These folks wouldn’t be delivering if they had jobs where they could work from home. If restaurants are encouraging you to order from them directly, use their website rather than a delivery service that will take a cut. Listen to what they want. There’s a Black-owned restaurant in my area that, because of the outpouring of support for Black-owned businesses, is so overwhelmed they can’t answer the phone anymore, so they say please order online from DoorDash and we’ll hook you up. There’s a different restaurant in my area that has a history of its owner being racist, and it’s important to note that kavod habriot, human dignity, is also important: Think about the ways in which we support businesses so the owners can continue to have a reasonable livelihood and support the community. Then there’s a whole set of Jewish stories and Jewish legal reasoning about the importance of work, of having a good occupation that helps you support others and give back to the community. Judaism’s emphasis on ensuring a healthy social fabric is important to keep in mind as you consider your choices.

Elliot Dorff, Rabbi, Ph.D., Rector, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Professor of Philosophy, and Chair of Bioethics, American Jewish University:

We all see the emotional toll this epidemic is taking on society. To quote Genesis 2, it’s not good for a person to live alone. Or to quote another ancient Jewish source, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Human beings have strong social needs; in prisons, short of the death penalty, the hardest punishment is solitary confinement. What it all boils down to is balancing conflicting needs, and that will vary from one region to another, based on the degree to which the virus has affected that region. Here in Los Angeles we have a 10th the rate of infection and death as in NYC, and it seems that in some ways our car culture may save our population; we’re isolated in our cars so much. This has all kinds of bad effects, but in this case may also be lifesaving.

Even the most optimistic reports are not till early next year for a vaccine. In the meantime, do what’s called triage, socially and in business and in the medical sense. We need to figure out who needs what and to what extent can we do something for the most vulnerable people. I’m 76 and I have asthma, so I guess I’m in the most vulnerable category. I haven’t gone out for anything except a walk with my wife, because you have to get out! But even if you can’t reach out and hug someone, reach out. By Zoom or Facetime ... or the phone still works, too. One of the odd nice results of this time is that I’ve been in touch with people I haven’t talked to for years. And we have four children, two in LA and two on the East Coast, and every other Sunday the five families have a Zoom conference. We could have done this years ago, but what the virus has led to is the thought that we need to do this. Look for new opportunities to connect with those we know and love and people we haven’t talked to in a long time. The kind of thing you hear regrets about when people are facing the death of a family member is I wish I’d told them I love them or that I forgive them or that I hope they’d forgive me. Now, when you don’t know if people are gonna be alive or dead because the usual parameters of age and sickness no longer apply, it’s especially urgent.

Jeffrey Burack, M.D., MPP, Attending Physician, East Bay AIDS Center, Oakland, Associate Clinical Professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley:

One theme that I think is a feature of Jewish ethics is that whenever you’re given a dilemma with two bad choices, the first step should be, “Well, why can’t I have a third choice?” Are we being presented with a false dichotomy? If the choice is only between forbidding people to work or allowing them to work and get sick, why not have a third choice, which would be creating structures to allow people to protect themselves? Provide protective gear, take steps at restaurants to protect staff, facilitate new delivery and drop-off procedures. Do that instead of saying, “Well, you’re on your own!”

There is an argument that job loss is related to an increase in mortality. There’s been good research over the years: Greater economic security is correlated with greater longevity; poverty is correlated with higher mortality. Your delivery person scenario is interesting because you’re talking about protecting the health of a specific person ... but if you forbid home delivery, that specific person will be put out of work, and the probability for that specific person’s early mortality may be increased.

Let’s put systems into place to allow people to work. That’s the approach we have taken with health care workers—you can argue about whether it’s being done well enough, but the approach is what we’d call, in another context, harm reduction. Don’t ban the activity, but think about how we can promote safety. The question about when to reopen is incredibly challenging. I’ve been proud that California’s aggressive and early shutdown has saved a lot of lives. But now we’re reopening in a lot of ways ... and that’s the balancing act. The goal was to flatten the curve but we can’t eliminate it. So what’s the cost of taking the lid off, at least a little? Clearly people are going to get sick and die. Some of my friends opted to go to the beach on Memorial Day, and my family decided not to go because we anticipated it would be really crowded and would go against the social distancing process we’d been encouraged to maintain. We can model how many more people will die on California beaches, on Long Island beaches, on the Jersey Shore ... and categorically, more people will die. But does that mean the activity should have been forbidden because of pikuach nefesh? You can’t just say, “This policy will be associated with increased risk of death, so it would be categorically forbidden by the principle of pikuach nefesh. Because the risk of death is all around us. Everything we do is a tradeoff between risking lives and serving other goals.

Yonatan Brafman, Assistant Professor of Jewish Law and Ethics, Jewish Theological Seminary:

The issue is not, “What should I do as an individual in balancing competing goods?” e.g., keeping local small businesses alive during the pandemic versus putting delivery workers at risk. But rather, “What are the political structures, choices, and policies that have led to this clash and then left the individual to adjudicate them?” And it is here that a Jewish perspective is useful, because it doesn’t recognize ethics as restricted to individual responsibility, but views it as encompassing the entire political order. This is a call to rethink the terms of the debate.

Jonathan K. Crane, Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar of Bioethics and Jewish Thought, Emory University’s Center for Ethics; Associate Professor of Medicine, Emory School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Religion, Emory College, Atlanta:

Food is a medium for relationships. For decades America has tried to undermine the interconnectedness that food allows through gentrification in urban areas, and this is one reason we have many maladaptive eating practices in this civilization. For the last hundred years America has tried to make food extraordinarily convenient, and convenience isn’t necessarily healthy, bodily and emotionally. Convenience should not be the primary driver for how we choose to consume something. In a rural place there may be only one restaurant at the corner of Main and First. It’s good that it exists. It employs local people, it probably sells food produced by local farms, it gives the town a piece of its character. I’m not trying to demonize chain restaurants. They employ people. But do they allow relationships? We see it playing out right now in the debate over meatpacking plants and America’s taste for cheap chicken putting people at risk.

Sander H. Mendelson, M.D., Bioethics Consultant, Center for Ethics; Senior Attending Cardiologist, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Washington, D.C.:

We’re dependent on a variety of people. As my wife puts it, the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone. Everything is connected. One important thing is to be aware of our privilege. Try to figure out where in your life you can have some kind of impact—if not now, then later—to create the kind of society where we don’t have these great discrepancies between comfortable people like us and less privileged Black and Hispanic populations in my city and yours. Get involved in organizations that work for health care for people who can’t afford it. Get into social action. You have to live in this world and be practical about your choices, but you don’t want to take them for granted. You can’t withdraw from the world and all the connections we have in the world. The ethical thing to do is not forget them once this is over and we’re back at summer camp and the Kennedy Center. Our congregation’s rabbis are doing a fantastic job of keeping the congregation tuned in, trying to keep us focused on living ethically at times like this. I’m sure other congregations are doing similarly.

I think recognition of ethical dilemmas is all we can do right now. I’m comfortable at home. I live in a nice house. I don’t have to go in to work right now, and I’m at the age when it’s probably smarter to stay out of the hospital, though eventually I’ll go back, I’m sure. The mail delivery person comes every day with a smile on his face and good cheer. The garbageman comes. We get occasional items from Amazon, although I’ve read about conditions there ... it’s hard not to do it. Then again, I’m forever indebted to the owner of Amazon for buying The Washington Post and leaving it alone to do the journalism that needs to be done.

How can one not be political? Life is a communal business. If I’m healthy that’s fine, but if the person I ride the Metro with has a communicable disease because he can’t get someone to take care of his health care needs—even before the COVID-19 problem, and more so now—it’s in my best interest for him to get good health care. If he’s the food preparer or grocery store worker, I can very easily suffer from the fact that he can’t get proper treatment in this society. Those who want to reduce Obamacare to nonfunctionality and don’t have anything better to say about what it should be, to me that’s the height of immorality. When you’re facing ethical dilemmas, decide which part of which problem you’ll focus on—you don’t want to be spread too thin. But pick one. Choose your issue.

So, what kinds of ethical choices can you make? The information we have about relative risk is changing almost every day. But attempting to maintain social distance, wearing a mask around other people as much as possible, washing your hands like a mofo, and offering to shop (or dropping off meals) for friends and neighbors with health conditions or compromised immune systems will never go amiss. Shop for groceries as seldom as you can get away with, bring a list, don’t browse or linger, and prioritize home delivery for folks who really need it. If you can afford it, have restaurant meals delivered as a treat for you and your family (who are so sick of your chili they are barely able to form words, or perhaps this is just my family). Consider buying restaurant meals for delivery to friends and relatives you know can’t get out much, too. If there are restaurants you particularly treasure, ones that add comfort and joy and a sense of community to your neighborhood, or that are repositories of local cultural and culinary history or are particularly good neighbors, for heaven’s sake give them your money in this worst of all possible timelines. Do you want all the quirky, personal, colorful family restaurants to become Starbucks and Citibanks? And if you have to choose, ordering takeout is better than buying gift certificates for use at some later date; the former is a better way than the latter to help a given restaurant’s workers.

If going out (gasp!) for a meal with friends (gasp!) is an option for you, and the weather is decent, consider enjoying your meal alfresco rather than indoors if possible. That seems to be the safer option. Do whatever you can to protect the restaurant staff and other diners. Wear your mask when you order or go to the bathroom—basically, when you do anything except put food in your face. Don’t hang out for ages kibitzing at the table after your meal—you’re putting others at risk and keeping the restaurant from turning the table at a time when they really need the business And finally, tip, tip, tip.

As Michael J. Broyde, Professor of Law at Emory, wrote in Tablet a few weeks ago, emergency measures (hora’at sha’ah) are, like Halacha, an integral part of the Jewish legal tradition. This unprecedented time is an opportunity as well as a misery: It’s a chance to wrestle with the kind of people we want to be moving forward.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.