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Fast Food Lobby Group: Workers With ‘Coughs’ and ‘Runny Noses’ Can Still Work During Coronavirus Pandemic

Canadian infectious disease specialists say it is ‘not very good’ advice during a global pandemic or otherwise

As the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, a lobby group representing Canada’s fast food industry was distributing materials to its members suggesting workers with a “cough” or “runny nose” may still be healthy enough to show up to work.

Restaurants Canada, a lobby group that calls itself “the voice of foodservice” and has been a leading group opposing minimum wage increases, released materials to its members Tuesday on “navigating coronavirus” in the workplace.

The group’s board members include representatives of major fast food companies like McDonald’s, Subway, Boston Pizza, Pizza Pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Included in its package of resource materials, which it described as “the most up to date information,” is a check-list for restaurant managers that offers advice on “whether a food handler is too sick to work?

Sick Worker Q&A (Restaurants Canada)

In a statement to PressProgress, Restaurants Canada emphasized that its check-list was produced by Diversey, a US-based hygiene product manufacturer.

Restaurants Canada said it shared these resources to “help foodservice businesses concerned about what to do specifically around COVID-19, as well as other more general health and safety training resources.”

“The “Sick or Not Sick?” worksheet is one of the more general-use resources.”

Following publication of this story, Restaurants Canada “updated and reorganized” its “navigating coronavirus” webpage and removed the check-list along with other materials.

Health experts called the lobby group’s tips questionable both as a response to the coronavirus and as a general-use resource.

For example, it suggests an “employee has coughed several times since the start of their shift” may not be sick since “coughing is a common reaction to many things.”

Instead, they advise that if the food handler is “not coughing phlegm, does not have a fever or sore throat and otherwise feels normal” they can continue working, provided they are “using hand sanitizer / soap and water and tissues as needed.”

It also suggests food handlers can safely work even if their “eyes are puffy and their nose is runny.” While a “runny nose can signal a respiratory infection,” they note that a “lack of fever or sore throat likely means they have allergies.”

Doctors, on the other hand, are not so sure about this advice.

Sick Worker Q&A (Restaurants Canada)

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Ontario, told PressProgress the fast food lobby group’s coronavirus advice was not scientifically sound.

“Even for a general context, this is not a very good guide,” Dr. Chakrabarti said about Restaurants Canada’s “sick or not” check-list.

“The issue with viruses is whereas it’s possible the majority of people get a fever and a cough with this particular virus, not everybody does,” Dr. Chakrabarti explained.

“By doing this type of distinguishing, you can actually miss key symptoms.”

The fast food lobby group’s suggestion that coughing food handlers should still show up to work also raises concerns for Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious diseases professor at the University of Toronto.

“People with a new fever and / or a cough should be considered potentially infectious until investigated,” Dr. Morris told PressProgress.

Dr. Ian Young, a health professor at Ryerson University, agrees that an “unexplained cough from an employee would be concerning and as a precaution those workers should not be allowed to work.”

“The primary risk or concern here is transmission of the virus to other co-workers or potentially to customers who come into close contact with the potentially infected worker,” Dr. Young said.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the most predominant symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, fatigue and a “dry cough.”

In February, before it declared a global pandemic, the World Health Organization advised: “if COVID-19 starts spreading in your community anyone with even a mild cough or low-grade fever (37.3 C or more) needs to stay at home.”



Update (March 12): Following publication of this story, Restaurants Canada announced it had “updated and reorganized” its coronavirus resources and had specifically removed its “Sick or Not Sick?” check-list.

This article has been updated to reflect this development.

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