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Self-serve soda machines will be increasingly harder to find due to COVID-19, experts say

Here's what the experts say about whether certain beverage stations are still safe to use in a post-COVID-19 world.
Restaurants And Theaters Reopen As Georgia Moves Forward With Plans
Dine-in restaurants across the country have started to reopen, but many customers will notice that self-soda fountains will remain closed. Dustin Chambers / Bloomberg via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Helping oneself to a refill or mixing up a custom concoction at a soda fountain are simple habits soda lovers probably took for granted. But due to coronavirus, self-serve food and beverage stations across the country are being shut down.

As the country starts to reopen nonessential businesses and restaurants, the fate of institutions like buffets has felt uncertain (at best) under new guidelines issued by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local governments.

Self-serve soda machines may not be gone for good, but here's what the experts say about whether they're still safe to use in a post-COVID-19 world.

Over the past few weeks, restaurants in some areas of the country have begun to reopen in phases while following state-mandated guidelines. With all 50 states now taking steps toward reopening, both the CDC and FDA have issued their own sets of guidelines with regards to businesses that sell and serve food or drinks.

The FDA is recommending all restaurants to limit their self-serve food and drink options, including drink stations, buffets and salad bars, for the time being. "As local regulatory/health authorities lift levels of restrictions, limit use with additional monitoring," the guidelines state.

To encourage social distancing, the CDC also suggested that restaurants should avoid operating drink and food stations where customers may serve themselves. However, the organization said businesses should defer to local municipalities first. "It is important to check with state and local health officials and other partners to determine the most appropriate actions while adjusting to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the local community," stated the CDC.

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Several industry organizations have also outlined suggested guidelines for restaurants hoping to reopen soon.

In its 10-page document, the National Restaurant Association provided a range of recommendations for eateries to follow, including frequent sanitizing of tables and the use of rolled silverware (instead of table presets). The association also referenced FDA guidelines, but offered the following advice for restaurants that decide to keep self-serve drink stations in use: Lemons (or any drink extras) and unwrapped straws should be removed, and the stations should be regularly cleaned.

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Concerns over spreading the coronavirus via food or drink are still low, but self-serve food and drink areas tend to be crowded spots where social distancing can prove difficult, so some health experts say that temporarily shutting these areas and machines down could be a beneficial preventative measure.

"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, told TODAY Food.

A lack of social distancing isn't the only potential concern surrounding these areas. The frequently touched surfaces around them can also be a breeding ground for bacteria if they're not regularly cleaned.

"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, said. "In theory, an individual could touch a contaminated surface and then infect themselves by subsequently touching their nose or mouth."

Are any restaurants are shutting down self-serve machines?

Many major restaurants chains have already announced enhanced in-store safety measures in response to the health crisis, with some companies deciding to shut off self-serve beverage stations for the foreseeable future.

In McDonald’s recently released guidelines for in-restaurant dining, the chain said its beverage bars will either be closed off entirely or operated by a crew member for the time being. Each McDonald’s owner and operator will be able to decide which option best suits their establishment.

Restaurant Brands International, the company behind Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes, also announced that its eateries have turned off their self-serve soda fountains. Drinks, along with extra condiments like ketchup, will be served at the front counter of restaurants.

Representatives for Wendy's and KFC were not immediately available for comment when asked about their restaurants' plans for reopening dining rooms.

Guidance on self-serve beverage stations is also varying widely across the country, but a few states, including Oregon, have already decided to halt their usage indefinitely. In other places, the guidelines are a little more confusing. In Indiana, for example, restaurants are no longer allowed to operate self-serve beverage stations, but they are still permitted at convenience stores.

And while many movie theaters across the country previously offered Coca-Cola soda mixing machines, representatives from both The Coca-Cola Co. and AMC theaters declined to comment on future business practices.

A representative for Regal Cinemas told TODAY that the company is currently analyzing the situation, but no decision has been made about its self-service machines. At this time, all 550 Regal cinemas are currently closed.

The future of self-service drink stations

Experts say the temporary closure of self-serve soda fountains may help slow the spread of coronavirus, but does that mean they'll be gone for good in most places?

"I think self-serve everything for now will be slow to come back and this not only includes self-serve soda machines, but also buffets, salad bars, dessert bars and brunch buffets. This is definitely happening across the country and very much part of the new normal," National Restaurant Consultants CEO Richard Weil told TODAY. Weil predicted that these adjustments may last between six months to a year and a half.

Experts say restaurateurs who still want to operate self-serve stations can implement several new measures to provide a safer customer experience, including:

  • Encourage customers to practice social distancing. "They could mark out the six feet required distance for people waiting in line, but the restaurants may not have sufficient space to allow for this," Dr. Randy W. Worobo, a professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, told TODAY.
  • Choose drink machines wisely. "The self-service machines that have the dispenser that is activated by pushing your single use cup (or) glass on the respective type of soda are better than the ones that have the buttons you use to select your soda type. The selection now becomes a high-contact point and would need to be sanitized to prevent the spread from one customer to the next," Worobo explained.
  • Implement more frequent machine cleaning. "Restaurants could potentially reduce the risk of infection by increasing the frequency of cleaning these areas and placing hand sanitizer in close proximity to the soda fountain," Reed added.

It's too early to determine the ultimate fate of self-serve beverage machines, but Weil believes it will be quite some time before a sizable majority of customers feel comfortable using them. In the future, however, he thinks beverage companies will start innovating to create safer, more hygienic experiences overall.

"I believe that with touch-less technology, we may see the development of voice command operations for self-service beverage stations that will automate ice, cup and dispense products on voice command," Weil said. "So, while temporary today, there will be a solution that the big brands, like Coke and Pepsi, will make work with technology to bring about a solution going forward."