Russians eat burgers in gloves - should everyone?

Customers wearing gloves eat burgers on the terrace of Black Star Burger in Moscow, on June 16, 2020. PHOTO: NYT

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - When you enter a home in Moscow, you take off your shoes. When you go to a play, you have to check your coat. When you eat a burger, you often wear gloves.

Across hygiene-conscious Eastern Europe, many people consider it uncouth and unsanitary to eat a burger with their bare hands. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a years-old trend: order a burger from Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, and there is a fair chance it will come with a side of disposable gloves.

To visiting Americans, the practice always seemed odd, bordering on blasphemous. Several United States restaurant safety experts, however, were intrigued, having never heard of establishments providing diners with disposable gloves.

They doubted the practice would take off in the United States - the coronavirus, after all, is not even known to spread through food - but some said that gloves used properly could help protect people who don't wash their hands from a variety of germs.

In Moscow, where the mayor ordered residents to wear gloves this spring as a coronavirus-mitigation measure, the number of restaurants serving burgers the American way is dwindling.

Vanity, not health concerns, first propelled Eastern Europe's gloves-and-burgers fad. The trend took off behind the former Iron Curtain as fancy burger places popped up in a region unfamiliar with the dish before McDonald's arrived in the 1990s.

Mr Alexander Monaenkov, a Moscow-born burger-bar owner in Prague, said he handed out gloves to evoke the refinement of white-gloved waiters in Michelin-star restaurants.

Ms Corina Enciu, a Moldovan-born restaurateur in Krakow, Poland, said she introduced gloves because her burger joint lacked a place for people to wash their hands.

"Now, with the coronavirus, this will be even more in demand," she said.

"People are afraid of this virus, and they will always use either gloves or hand sanitiser."

Gloves are not necessarily more hygienic than good hand-washing, scholars noted, and they create waste.

People transmit the coronavirus mainly through the air, and the United States Food and Drug Administration said there is no evidence of the virus spreading through food or food packaging.

"What I don't want people to do is to be so paranoid about eating with gloves," said Dr Donald Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, "that they forget that the overwhelming majority of the risk comes from other people."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.