Will soda machines be safe to use in a post-coronavirus world?
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Coca Cola soft drink self serving vending machine
Credit: Roberto Machado Noa / Contributor / Getty Images

It's increasingly clear that COVID-19 is changing a lot about how we exist in and interact with our world. As we begin leaving home and trying to make our way through the new normal, the need for permanent changes will become increasingly clear. Some things may never return, and one of those may very well be the self-serve soda machine.

The issue with self-serve is that people will be touching surfaces themselves — something that can increase exposure and impair the improvements in cleanliness and decline in new cases.

Right now, the Food and Drug Administration is advising that all venues limit their self-serve machine options, like soda machines, salad bars, hot food bars, buffets, and more. The guidelines say, "As local regulatory/health authorities lift levels of restrictions, limit use with additional monitoring."

Plus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants bars and restaurants to avoid any self-serve stations too, to keep customers and staff safe.

What makes self-serve so alarming? While limiting food and drink in general is important, the exposure is lower as it's coming from the kitchen, prepared by those wearing gloves and masks, and is being served by a staff member also wearing a protective mask.

With self-serve options, several hands can touch the same surface, and many customers are not wearing masks when they dine out or visit a self-serve machine, too.

"Although COVID-19 is primarily spread via respiratory droplets, it can be viable for 48 hours on stainless steel surfaces and 72 hours on plastic," Dr. Brian Reed, chair of clinical sciences at the University of Houston's medical college, told Today.com. "In theory, an individual could touch a contaminated surface and then infect themselves by subsequently touching their nose or mouth."

Plus, there's the issue of social distancing and people crowd in these areas. "In my opinion, there should not be any self-service areas within restaurants during a pandemic. It will especially be challenging to ensure that customers socially distance effectively around these areas," Sujata Sirsat, assistant professor at the University of Houston's college of hotel and restaurant management, said in an interview to TODAY Food.

Fast food chains and restaurants have said they will avoid opening self-serve areas, such as soda and drink stations and condiment areas for now. When will they open back up? We don't quite know yet. But it'll be a struggle for a while.

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