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Charleston area restaurants put staff in gloves, despite little evidence they're effective

Rodney Scott's BBQ

Ray Walker dons gloves while bringing a to-go order out to a car from Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston on Thursday, April 30, 2020. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Gloves may indeed enhance diners’ “psychological sense of safety,” as the restaurant reopening guidelines endorsed by South Carolina suggest, but the state’s health inspectors aren’t lining up behind them.

“The wearing of gloves is just one way (to avoid) bare hand contact with food,” S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spokeswoman Laura Renwick said when asked if the agency would encourage restaurant employees to don gloves. “The use of tongs or single-use deli paper are others.”

In other words, DHEC still considers gloves an acceptable method of controlling the pathogens associated with foodborne illness but doesn’t view them as a tool to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That stance is in line with scientific research, which hasn’t yet shown that disposable gloves help protect workers or patrons. As North Carolina State University food safety professor Benjamin Chapman puts it, “Gloves are not magical.”

Yet at restaurants across the Charleston area where employees aren’t required to wear face coverings, single-use gloves are becoming commonplace.

For example, Brian Solari of Carmella’s Dessert Bar says that rather than issuing masks, he’s “stressing the same hand-washing and glove-wearing procedures that have always been recommended by health professionals.”

There is overwhelming evidence that handwashing is helpful in the fight against disease. But gloves are considerably more contentious, in part because of the belief they provide wearers with a false sense of security. A DHEC publication admonishes restaurant workers that "gloves are not a substitute for proper hand hygiene," noting that gloves can be as hazardous as soiled hands.

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While Chapman says scholarship on the topic is thin, many longtime food-and-beverage workers and food safety experts think people wearing gloves “will do things like take them to the restroom or touch something contaminated but forget.”

Concerns over the behavior of people wearing gloves are so acute that the Canadian government this week advised citizens to forgo consumer-grade gloves. The agency suggested food service workers instead wash their hands frequently.

A federally funded group of U.S. environmental health specialists and epidemiologists in 2006 published a study of food service workers’ hand-washing practices based on observations of hundreds of workers across the country. Approximately three out of every four times, the researchers found, workers don’t wash their hands even though conditions call for it.

Most workers continued about their business after coughing, sneezing, blowing their noses, touching raw meat and handling dirty equipment. Certain activities were even less likely to spark a visit to the sink. Just 10 percent of workers washed their hands after touching themselves, a habit which has been linked with coronavirus transmission since the start of the pandemic.

Researchers also found a difference between workers who wore gloves and workers who didn't. The workers who wore gloves were less likely to wash their hands at the right time.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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