The Real Problem With Thom Tillis' Stance on Hand Washing

The North Carolina senator is more worried about businesses than consumers.
Photographer: Davis Turner/Getty Images

Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, spent Tuesday being the butt of several jokes after his comments on hand washing went public. During an appearance at the Bipartisan Policy Center on Monday, Tillis argued that restaurants should be able to opt-out of the requirement that employees wash their hands after using the restroom, as long as they let customers know. 

Tillis retold the story of a time a woman asked him if hand washing wasn’t the sort of regulation that needed to be on the books. Here’s how he replied, according to The District Sentinel:

“I said: ‘As a matter of fact, I think it’s one that I can [use to] illustrate the point,’” he remarked. “I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,”’” he recalled, as the audience chuckled. “The market will take care of that.’”

The senator’s comments have inspired a dozen jokes about hand washing (Salon: “If you ever see Sen. @ThomTillis out campaigning, don't let him shake your hand or kiss your baby.” MSNBC: “Sen. Thom Tillis’ constituents might want to think twice before shaking his hand.”) But Tillis isn’t arguing that employees shouldn’t wash their hands after using the restroom. He’s arguing that the government shouldn’t be the reason your employees wash their hands—the fear of going out of business because people think your restaurant serves feces-covered food should be the reason employees wash their hands. 

The problem with Tillis’s comment isn’t that he thinks employees should be allowed to opt out of post-poop hand washings, but that he’d rather make things easier for businesses than safe for consumers. Tillis’s example takes pressure off businesses to provide safe food, and forces consumers to judge every meal’s likelihood of making them violently ill.

In North Carolina, as in several other states, hand washing regulations are more complicated and expansive than the ‘Employees Must Wash Their Hands Before Returning to Work’ sign above the bathroom sink. They dictate how to wash your hands (10-15 seconds with warm, running water), where employees can wash their hands (in a designated hand washing sink, not a sink used for food preparation), what kind of soap you can use (FDA approved), and what to use to dry off your hands (disposable paper towels or a hand dryer).

Not everyone will follow the regulations, but at least there’s a standard for health officials to enforce. Under Tillis’s example, if an employee washes his hands for 5 seconds, uses no soap and cold water, and dries his hands off on his jeans, hasn’t he washed his hands? Maybe, but that’s certainly not safe for consumers, as several salmonella outbreaks over the years have shown.

In 2013, an All American Grill in Tillis’s home state gave a hundred people salmonella. The health department identified several health violations that could have contributed to food cross-contamination, including the fact that the hand washing sink was out of paper towels and soap, and didn’t have sufficiently hot water, all factors that “could serve as a deterrent to hand washing or render it ineffective,” according to the department. In that situation that market didn’t take care of the safety risks—100 ill guests and employees did.