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Right now, a novel form of coronavirus has been declared a pandemic and the world is in an uproar. While it’s just been declared a pandemic, I’m hoping that things recover soon so I can actually come back to this post and remove this whole paragraph. As of right now, however, there are a lot of people who still don’t seem to feel it’s a real threat. Truth be told, those are often the same people who don’t take the flu seriously, which is why it kills so many every year.

I’ve written and rewritten this a few times now, because venting doesn’t help. I’m also aware that some people will read this and roll their eyes. If that’s how you feel, this post isn’t for you — it’s for other people like me. Back in 1998, I became ill and wasn’t expected to survive. I was in and out of the hospital every time I caught a cold or flu. Finally, a nurse gave me some tips and it turned everything around. Now, by doing things a certain way, I’ve been able to live a fuller life. 

People will look at some of these suggestions and think it’s so time-consuming (it’s not, with practice) or fear-mongering (it’s the opposite – this provides tools to empower people like me to be able to go out and live!). What I’ll say is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — I’d rather do these things than be out sick for weeks. I took 40 flights last year without getting sick once, despite my health issues. This has worked for me and you need to do what’s right for you. Is this isn’t it, so be it 🙂

A Word About “Germaphobia” and OCD

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often a long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions), and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” It impacts 1.2% of the population (or more) and among adults with OCD, half experience symptoms strongly enough to seriously impact their lives. A common concern is a fear of contamination.

I’ve lived with OCD since I was seven years old, and my medical issues reinforced (intensified) my rituals. I’m also a psychology professor. For many years, I hid my condition because people can truly be cruel and/or ignorant. When I finally started being more open, it was very difficult to deal with the mockery and judgment. People will demand you explain yourself and put you on the spot, which can be horrible and demeaning. 

When I’ve explained that my OCD is compounded by the fact that I’ve got underlying health issues, many have said things like, “Oh, well at least you have a reason to be like this.” It’s very hurtful to hear something like that, as it’s a backhanded way of continuing the stigma against people with mental illness. Your OCD is enough reason for others to respect your boundaries and show compassion!

To my friends with OCD or germaphobia: my heart is with you. Surround yourselves with caring people who allow you to be yourself and will support you as you work on coping strategies. Weed out the critical, unhelpful people in your life. Just as it’s inappropriate to complain about not being able to take the stairs because your friend needs a wheelchair, it is indeed inappropriate to make someone feel bad for mental illness. Find your tribe and live a more peaceful life. 

Skip The Buffets

When I was a kid, my family loved buffets. By the time I turned 20, though, there were things about the experience that made me uneasy. There are about a million different articles out there about the dangers of all-you-can-eat places, but here are just a few reasons you should consider skipping the buffet:

  • You don’t know if the food is old
  • It can be hard for restaurants to maintain buffet food at a safe temperature
  • Everyone in the restaurant handles the serving utensils
  • People cough and sneeze without covering
  • Kids (or adults) might touch food or serving items and contaminate them

Overall, the choice is yours, but it’s been decades since I ate at a buffet and I’ll never go back. This also applies to potlucks and “serve yourself” dinners. These are common at conferences and I’ve observed some pretty nasty things over the years. No, thank you!

 

Fast Food Restaurants

If you’ve read any of my theme park reviews, you’ll know that I’m really vigilant at fast food restaurants. The turnover rate at these places is often high, meaning the staff may not be well trained or experienced. We’re going to break this down into a few steps.

Find your tribe, clean your hands and be happy!

 

Watch the Crew

It’s more convenient to hit the drive-thru sometimes, but if you can, linger inside and pretend to look at the menu. While you’re doing that, pay attention to the crew. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does anyone seem sick? 
  • Do they handle food properly? 
  • Are they wearing gloves? 
  • Do the people handling food also come in contact with money?

This will give you a good indication of whether to place an order or walk out. Don’t be shy, either. We’ve been bold enough to ask people to clean their hands before touching our food and, while some might roll their eyes, they generally comply (because they know they should have anyway!).  

Japan Restaurant Sink

One of the reasons why we love Japan is because hand washing stations can be found everywhere – even in the middle of a restaurant!

Condiments

Do you want some ketchup or barbecue sauce to go with your tasty meal? Like anyone, there are some foods that I just can’t eat without the right condiments. While this is one area that people often overlook, here are some tips:

  • Get your to-go order BEFORE asking for condiments. Otherwise, they’ll just grab them with dirty hands and throw them into the bag on top of your clean, unprotected fries. Sigh. Note: they do the same with napkins, so speak up! 
  • We rub hand sanitizer on packets of condiments before we open them so that the ketchup (or whatever) doesn’t make contact with the dirty exterior before we add it to our food. 
  • Be really mindful with condiment stations where everyone is using those pumps. We avoid them by always ordering our food to go even if we’re eating in (see below).

Condiment packets are necessary, but not always clean.

Food Trays

Yuck, yuck, yuck. Again, you can do some research on this, but large numbers of employees and customers handle food trays before piling them near the garbage. Nope! Now, there are times when we’ve had to use them, but we are always mindful to clean our hands before eating. We’ll touch more on this below. 

Drinks 

Another overlooked aspect of eating fast food is the drink situation. If you’re trying to avoid germs while eating out, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Watch how the cashier handles the cup. Some grab the cup and then hold it by folding their index finger over the top. This means their dirty hand has been on the interior of your cup. Ask for a new cup and tell them why.
  • Make sure they don’t touch the underside of your drink’s lid. This area under the lid will make contact with the liquid in your cup and then you’ll drink it. They should handle the lid by holding the outside edges. 
  • Clean the top of your lid (even the ones with spouts for hot drinks, for example). Your straw will make contact with that and then it will take whatever is lurking on the surface and put it into your drink. 
  • Wipe down juiceboxes or pouches before giving them to kids. 
  • Ordering tea? Ask them not to add the teabag. Do it yourself so you control the handling of it. 
  • Ask for no ice as ice machines may not have been cleaned properly.

Straws & Utensils

We don’t use the stuff that’s just in a bin for everyone to reach in and grab. 

  • Only use straws that have wrappers (or bring your own reusable straw – even better!).
  • Use wrapped utensils or wipe/sanitize ones that are unwrapped when there’s no other option (or bring your own reusable straw)

    Holding the wrapper keeps you from touching your food with dirty hands.

Always Get Your Food to Go

Even if you’re planning to sit in the restaurant, ask for your order to go. There are a few reasons why we usually do things this way (we’re a lot more lax in the summer when it’s not cold and flu season):

  • The kitchen staff will likely put your food in the bag, skipping the money-handling cashier. 
  • Your fries will be safe in a bag rather than propped up on the nasty food tray. 
  • You’ll be able to walk out quickly if things get sketchy in the restaurant (people coughing at a neighboring table)
  • Rip the bag open and use it like a tablecloth to avoid contact with the table. 

Wipe the table

Do we wipe the tables at restaurants? Yes, almost every single time. Again, part of this is OCD, but this is also about high-risk populations doing small things to protect themselves against big problems. 

Caleb even helps to wipe the table.

If a cancer patient (or anyone!) wants to enjoy a quick bite but also wants to avoid contact with germs, 20 seconds to wipe down the table is a minimal time investment to help keep them safe. Again, we wouldn’t have to do this as much if more people were respectful and mindful. 

Casual Dining

Here’s a tip about casual dining: we find restaurants that do things well, and we stick with them. Restaurants often reward loyal customers. Not only do they treat “regulars” better because they want to keep us happy, but they’re also more willing to honor special requests.

So, our best and most important advice is to find some places that you can trust and give them all your business. Let’s go over a few things to help you stay healthy when dining at sit-down restaurants. 

The Menu

There’s a few things to keep in mind when it comes to the menu — it’s basically the only thing that gets passed around from table to table without being cleaned. 

  • Wash your hands or use sanitizer AFTER handling the menu. 
  • Skip menu items that you have to hold with your hands if this is a concern for you.
  • Consider looking at the menu online and asking them not to give you one at all. 

Some people like to look at a menu even if they know what they want, but always clean your hand vigorously after handling it.

It’s okay to keep sanitizer on the table.

Drinks

All of the same suggestions for fast food drinks apply to casual dining restaurants, too. There are a few additional things to consider, though:

  • Ask the server NOT to put lemon wedges in your drink. They are often sliced up and put into a bin where someone (anyone) reaches in, grabs it, and puts it in your drink without washing their hands. 
  • Ask the server NOT to put your straw into your drink. Again, this is usually done without washing their hands.
  • Skip the ice.
  • Bring your own reusable straw or ask for one that is wrapped. 
  • Watch water refills – if your straw touches the pitcher, ask for a new one. 
  • Keep your straw with you if the server takes it for refills.
  • If you drink from the glass, wipe the rim before you put your mouth on it. 
  • Remember that your server has handled your glass, so if you grab it with clean hands, you’ll have to clean your hands again. We either wipe it down or position it so that we can drink from it without touching it.  

Plates, Utensils & Condiments

At most restaurants you’ll receive utensils after being seated. Some places will also provide you with a small plate for sharing food or appetizers. It’s also common to see condiments on the table. We clean our utensils and the plate with a small amount of hand sanitizer. Instead of cleaning the ketchup bottle, we squirt out what we need and then clean our hands afterwards. 

We sanitize plates and utensils on our table.

A Few Extras

We’re pretty much done (yes, this was a LOT), but there are a few more things that we take into account when we’re going out to a restaurant, even if it’s a fast food place:

  • Bring a pump of sanitizer and put it on the table. We do it and we do not care who doesn’t like it.
  • Does the restaurant look well-maintained? If not, you may not want to press your luck.
  • Consider sitting in a booth. It feels more isolated and limits the amount of foot traffic that will pass your food. 
  • Watch carefully to make sure your server’s fingers didn’t come in contact with your actual food (we’ve seen this A LOT). If they grazed a french fry, for example, just remove it from your plate.
  • Avoid sitting near the toilets and drink machines where people will congregate or line up.
  • Celebrating a birthday? Skip the birthday candles; even well-meaning servers may put those into a celebratory dessert with unwashed hands. 
  • Leave your phone in your purse or pocket. It’s covered with germs. Instead, unplug and enjoy a few technology-free moments 🙂

Be Prepared for Mockery

We travel EVERYWHERE now that we have more confidence and these are the strategies we use to stay safe and to have peace of mind. For that reason, I don’t care what anyone says — this is how I live and I’m fine with that. If this helps you see the world and live your life, then do it without apologies.

Sanitizer at the ready!

People have warned me against the poisons of hand sanitizer (to be clear, hand washing is best but it’s not always practical), but the alternative for me (since so many people careless expose others to illness) is to just stay inside. I refuse to do that anymore, so sanitizer has become my best friend. 

If you plan to implement any of these things, prepare to be mocked or called paranoid. I’ve had grown ass adults laugh in my face or pretend to cough on me for laughs. Doing that is never cool and it says a lot more about them than it does about you. They aren’t going to pay your lost wages or medical bills, so tell those people to get over themselves. If they’re that easily triggered by someone using sanitizer, they have the problem — not you.

That being said, I’ve lived this way for YEARS and have become so proficient at taking these steps on the down-low that most people don’t even notice. Recently, I grew tired of hiding it and have been more open. I’m committed to fighting the stigma, but I also understand that many might want to learn how to do all this discreetly (trust me, it’s possible — Josh had no idea for the first four years we knew each other!). 

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