Some fast-food workers are begging customers to wear masks when going through the drive thru. An expert says it’s a valid concern.

7-Eleven Drive-thru store
Drive-thru store. 7-Eleven
  • Some fast-food workers told Insider they would feel safer if customers wore masks in drive-thrus.
  • An infectious disease expert told Insider that drive-thrus may be more dangerous for customers than workers. 
  • Workers in more vaccinated areas who spoke to Insider said they are less concerned about unmasked customers. 

Fast-food workers are exposed to up to hundreds of people each shift, and some who spoke to Insider are pleading with customers to wear masks in the drive-thru.

“If the worker is wearing a mask, you should too,” a California Starbucks employee told Insider. “It just shows the bare minimum courtesy.” He added that it’s meaningful to feel like customers care about workers’ wellbeing. 

Another Starbucks worker in New York told Insider that she and her coworkers prefer when drive-thru customers wear masks, but it’s not very common. She estimates that just one in every 20 drive-thru customers wears a mask while interacting with workers.

“There definitely isn’t six feet of space” between the drive-thru window and customers, “so if they did mask it would feel a lot safer,” she said.

A Midwestern Taco Bell employee, who is immunocompromised, told Insider that he feels safer when drive-thru customers are masked, even though the interactions are usually short. He also recommended customers pay through the app when possible, so they don’t have to lean in even closer to hand over cash or credit cards.

A Starbucks worker in Pennsylvania had slightly different reasoning when speaking to Insider for asking customers to mask up.

“You just don’t know what’s going on with the person serving you,” she told Insider, explaining that many of her coworkers have been home over positive COVID-19 tests or exposures. She does not want to infect anyone coming through her line, she said.

Workers asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak to the press, but their identities were verified by Insider. 

There isn’t an easy or simple answer to whether customers wearing masks is necessary in drive-thrus, according to Dr. Ruth Carrico, executive director for the Norton Infectious Diseases Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. Each drive-thru is built differently, but typically ventilation inside a restaurant is positive, meaning higher air pressure inside than outside causes air from inside to blow out through the window and into the car, Carrico told Insider. That means that in many cases, the person inside the car could be at greater risk of infection. 

Medical experts, including the CDC, agree that masks can prevent coronavirus transmission. The health organization currently recommends that everyone wears at least cloth masks, though some experts say medical-grade masks are better at stopping virus particles. 

Some states have mask mandates in public spaces, and many businesses require customers wear masks to enter. 

Customer attitudes towards masking vary by location. A McDonald’s worker in a northeast state with a high vaccination rate said he isn’t very concerned. A Chick-fil-A manager in Virginia said that though few customers wear masks in the drive-thru, nearly his entire team is vaccinated, so they’re not especially worried about being exposed there.

With changing factors like airflow and distance between cars and restaurants, Carrico says it’s difficult to prescribe a blanket rule that’s perfect for every situation.

“My vote is to protect the worker and the person in the car and have everyone mask,” she told Insider. Everyone on both sides of the interaction wearing a mask is relatively easy to implement while reducing harm and providing the greatest protection to everyone, she said. 

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