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Is It Safe to Eat at Restaurants Yet?

Dining out right now will come with certain risks. Here’s what you can do to keep yourself and others around you safe.

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At this point, almost every U.S. state has entered some phase of reopening. But although many states opened dining rooms and relaxed restrictions in a push for a return to normal this summer, as certain areas see COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise, it seems some may have opened too soon.

Broadly, restaurants are encouraged — or ordered — to reduce capacity and space out tables, but the exact rules vary from state to state, and with no universal guidance, restaurants are left to design their own protocols for creating safe spaces for their employees and customers. It hasn’t been entirely successful.

Nearly two months after Georgia became the first state to reopen, including allowing indoor dining, coronavirus cases are trending upwards. On June 3, Texas entered the third phase of its reopening, which allowed all businesses to operate at up to 50 percent capacity, and as of June 12, restaurants were allowed to operate up to 75 percent capacity. The state now has nearly 120,000 confirmed cases, and has experienced a recent surge in cases attributed to young people going out to bars. And since the reopenings began, restaurants in Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, and other cities have been forced to shut down again as employees test positive for COVID-19, begging the question: Even if you can go to a restaurant, should you?

Without a vaccine, there is risk. No one knows how long it will take to create a working vaccine, and although there are promising trials in progress, the head of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program believes a viable vaccine is so far off that the novel coronavirus may just become a consistent part of our futures. And so right now, the decision of whether or not to dine out is personal. It’s dependent on the prevalence of the disease in your region as well as individual risk. (Are you at increased risk of becoming seriously ill if you contract COVID-19? Are you living with someone who is?) It also depends on the restaurant’s design and safety protocols, and while there is no absolutely risk-free way to eat out right now, according to experts, there are scenarios that are safer than others. Whether you’re in a state that has “reopened” or are merely fantasizing about the day you’ll sit in a dining room again, the answers to these questions can help you weigh the risks and make an informed decision about when to return to a restaurant and how to behave once you get there.

If your state has reopened dine-in service, does that mean it’s safe to go back to eating in restaurants?

With so much unknown about the coronavirus, coupled with its continued community spread and testing that still isn’t robust enough to effectively identify and isolate everyone who may be infected, it’s premature to declare reopened businesses and lifted restrictions on public life to be 100 percent safe. “I am an eating enthusiast who loves going out to eat with my friends and family, and as much as I’m eager for restaurants to reopen … we just don’t know enough about transmission to really estimate the risk of infection,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and associate research scientist at Columbia University.

But truthfully, there’s no such thing as “safe” — if by “safe” we mean “absolutely zero risk” — in environments with other people until there’s a vaccine (which may take a very long time) or until everyone has contracted the virus and developed antibodies that confer sustained immunity. Given that “zero-risk safe” isn’t possible, and that health concerns have to be balanced with economic concerns (unless, say, the federal government were to offer more direct help to the populace, perhaps in the form of monthly $2,000 stimulus checks), the question becomes: How do we mitigate risks during this incremental process known as reopening/recovery?

It’s important to remember the basics of how SARS-CoV-2 can spread: through large viral droplets, through contaminated inanimate objects known as fomites, and, as some studies suggest, through airborne particles, according to Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University and co-author of the book Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. Given these potential modes of transmission, there are a number of factors to consider when it comes to dining out again, like: indoors or outdoors? Mask on or off? Cash or credit?

These are all questions that restaurant owners are thinking about right now as many prepare to reopen, but it’s a good idea to ask those businesses what their concrete plans are to prevent virus transmission, says infectious disease epidemiologist and infection prevention researcher Saskia Popescu. And then there are the basic guidelines that everyone should consider: getting updates from your local health department to know whether your area is seeing decreasing cases; continuing to practice good infection-control habits like hand hygiene; and opting for takeout or delivery if you’re high-risk or live with someone who is, per Popescu.

Above all, remember that risk is shared: It’s not just you at risk of infection here, but your loved ones, other people’s loved ones, and an entire community. “I hope that, as a country, we will continue to think about our neighbors, our community members, and those of us who are at higher risk,” says Michael Knight, assistant professor of medicine and the patient safety officer at the George Washington University. “As a good neighbor and a good citizen, what role can you take to get some sense of normalcy and to improve our economic conditions, but to also decrease the risk?” That may mean still limiting nonessential trips even if restrictions in your state are lifting — or, at the very least, taking note of the following suggestions to mitigate risk as much as possible.

Illustration of a restaurant table surrounded by four clocks each showing different stretches of time. Aladdin Color Inc/Getty; Peter Dazeley/Getty; Science Photo Library/Getty

Are you safer in a bigger restaurant with socially distanced tables than a smaller restaurant with the same protocols?

As people return to dining rooms, social distancing will be essential for restaurants of every size.

A bigger, well-ventilated restaurant with strict limits on the number of people working and the number of people it serves will be safest. “A larger restaurant that can spread out people better and still have fewer staff and have fewer clients will be preferable to all trying to pack in,” says Robyn Gershon, professor of epidemiology at the NYU School of Global Public Health.

A report from architects Charles Hemminger and Seth Boor shows what socially distanced tables could look like for restaurants in San Francisco. Changing restaurant layouts to accommodate social distancing will require them to reduce the number of people they serve, and for restaurants that get by on very thin margins under normal circumstances, reducing capacity in this way might not be sustainable financially. Arranging tables six feet apart may be more possible for restaurants with bigger spaces for both logistical and financial reasons, but the number of people in a space increases risk, and by that calculation, a smaller restaurant with socially distanced tables would be safer than a larger restaurant trying to serve as many people as possible under the new rules. “The more people, the higher the risk that someone there is infected,” explains Knight. “The No. 1 risk is interacting with someone else who is infected.”

However, if a small restaurant doesn’t have the space to properly space out tables or safely manage the flow of people, that would cancel out some of the benefit of its small capacity. Restaurants need to ensure “there’s enough space to move so that people aren’t on top of each other,” says Allen. Dining room tables spaced six feet apart is just the first consideration; diners also need to remain socially distanced in waiting areas, bathroom lines, and in multi-stall restrooms. Plus, without proper ventilation, this space becomes immediately unsafe.

Should you be worried about the number of people at your table? How many is too many?

Although the CDC’s phase 1 reopening guidelines suggest limiting gatherings to groups of no more than 10 people, some experts caution that dining out in groups that size is still risky. “As things open up, we still need to be safe,” says Popescu. “If those are people you’re living with, that’s fine, but if you’re going out to meet eight friends, I worry about the increased risk for that many people.”

Consistently, studies have shown that the virus spreads most easily among groups of people in enclosed spaces. Super-spreader events, in which one infected person passes the virus to multiple people, occur when people from different households come together for an activity indoors, whether it’s a religious service or a birthday party. Similarly, a large group dinner that gathers people from different households in a restaurant dining room could put everyone at risk.

Diners can’t socially distance while sitting at the same restaurant table, and they can’t wear masks while eating, so there’s a clear risk of transmitting the virus. Gershon agrees that limiting group dining to people who live together lowers risk. “It would make sense to go out with people that you’ve been in quarantine with and not introduce ourselves to other people that we haven’t been in close contact with over these past several weeks.” So while there’s no ideal dining party size, if you must look beyond your own household, fewer people at your own table is safer.

How much does a restaurant’s ventilation system/airflow really play into things? Should that influence where you sit to limit risk of coronavirus transmission?

We know that the virus spreads when people are in close contact, and according to the CDC, respiratory droplets that are produced when a sick person coughs or sneezes are the most common mechanism for transmission. These droplets don’t travel more than six feet from the sick person, which is why social-distancing rules use the six-feet marker.

However, there is also evidence that the virus can spread through small droplets produced during normal activity, like talking or laughing, and while larger droplets fall to the ground, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and covered by the New York Times, these small droplets can remain suspended in the air for up to 14 minutes. Additionally, research shows that the virus is aerosolized, meaning it’s contained in even smaller droplets called aerosols that can travel through air and, as increasing evidence suggests, can remain in the air for hours indoors.

Back in April, Chinese researchers released the results of a study that showed how air currents from a Guangzhou restaurant’s ventilation system carried aerosols to restaurant patrons more than six feet away from an infected diner. The study seemed to suggest that diners should be wary of ventilation systems — and that there might be “safe” places to sit in restaurants.

More recent findings from the University of Oregon may also suggests that air conditioning units and ventilation systems can carry the virus. In a study of the HVAC system in a healthcare setting, the virus was detected in 25 percent of samples taken from units in nine different locations, raising the possibility that viral particles can travel through the air handling system of a hospital, including through high-efficiency filters and into air ducts. The authors of the study believe this has implications for other kinds of spaces, too.

However, there are too many unknowns to take meaningful action (the samples in the University of Oregon study, for instance, were not evaluated for viral infectivity), and ultimately, ventilation does work to mitigate the spread of the virus. Ventilation systems, if constructed properly — meaning that they’re delivering fresh outdoor air and recirculating air through a high-efficiency filter — help clean the air. “We’ve known about these factors for a long time in terms of how they can exacerbate a problem in a building or work to help mitigate disease,” says Allen. “It’s not so much that an air conditioner or any other system is inherently good or bad, it’s how it’s being operated and how the air is being delivered.”

While it’s possible for the virus to be carried in small droplets through the air, airflow can also disrupt aerosol transmission. According to Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director of Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory at the University of Oregon, increasing airflow in a room, whether it’s through a ventilation system or opening windows to create a cross breeze, is one of three built-environment considerations that may reduce transmission. There’s also evidence to suggest that humidity supports immune function, prevents viral particles from being deposed deep into the respiratory tract, and has been shown to deactivate viruses. And while more data is needed, some preliminary research shows that sunlight can deactivate the virus in the same way it does for bacteria, leading some researchers to advocate for ultraviolet light fixtures that bring this ability indoors. The technology is called upper-room ultraviolet germicidal irradiation and has been previously successful in slowing the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and measles, according to the New York Times.

But it’s too soon to declare any indoor dining set-up safe: as long as there is a person in a restaurant with the virus, there’s the possibility that it will spread. “If there’s one viral shedder in that space,” says Van Den Wymelenberg, “there’s risk.”

Illustration of an outdoor patio table next to a window, next to a pedestrian crossing road sign. Glowimages/Getty; Riou/Getty; Isabel Pavia/Getty; National Weather Service

Is outdoor or patio seating safer, taking into consideration airflow and exposure to passersby?

The natural ventilation of the outdoors makes it safer than enclosed spaces, and states like Louisiana and Connecticut allowed outdoor dining before moving to open restaurant dining rooms. “There’s no way to know how much safer, but anywhere you’ve got more dilution, it’s going to reduce the risk of airborne or aerosol transmission,” says Van Den Wymelenberg.

As with indoor seating, it’s vital that diners take social distancing into account when eating outside, whether it’s on a restaurant’s patio or in a park. “Being outdoors is not sufficient itself,” explains Allen. “We still have to take these other precautions … including maintaining physical distancing, managing the flow of people in and out of the space, managing the waiting area, managing the bathrooms. It really has to be this holistic strategy.”

While it’s feasible to keep six feet of distance between diners seated outside, it may not be reasonable to expect the same distance from passersby in cities where restaurants share sidewalks with pedestrians. But although this technically puts diners in contact with more people, potentially increasing risk, the likelihood of contracting the virus from a passerby who comes within six feet isn’t high. Popescu notes that face-to-face interactions for a prolonged period of time (around 10 minutes) are more concerning, and several reports on community spread compiled and posted on Twitter by Muge Cevik, an infectious diseases and virology clinician and researcher at the University of St. Andrews, show that “close and prolonged” contact, not brief interactions, is the overall driver of the epidemic.

Are you safer in a restaurant with fewer front-of-house employees?

The fewer people a diner interacts with, the better. “My biggest focus on risk would be reducing the number of people you’re coming into close, prolonged contact with,” says Popescu. This includes fellow diners, as well as restaurant staff.

Is there a limit to how long you should spend in restaurants?

The longer you sit in a restaurant, the more opportunities there are to come into contact with other people as tables turn over or shifts change. To avoid crowds, it may also be prudent to consider the time of day you dine. As the New York Times pointed out in a report that used cellphone data to track crowds at various types of businesses, it would make sense to avoid a pancake house during the crowded morning hours. While it’s possible to limit your direct contact with people in a restaurant setting, especially at less-crowded times of the day, Knight wouldn’t recommend a leisurely meal. “I would recommend having your meal and enjoying it, but keeping in mind that the longer you stay, the higher your risk. You want to balance between comfort and reducing your risk.”

That said, there’s no point at which the length of time you spend in a restaurant switches from safe to unsafe. As Allen explains, it’s a multifactorial issue: the risk of contracting the virus does depend on duration and frequency of contact, but it also depends on proximity and the concentration of the viral load. “That’s why there isn’t an answer to how long is an acceptable amount of time,” he says. “It depends. It’s maybe an unsatisfying answer, but that’s the reality.”

Is fast casual — which may have more people, but less exposure time — safer than a traditional sit-down restaurant?

Once again, it depends. In a fast-casual setting, interactions with staff are necessarily brief and limited, which is helpful for reducing the risk of contracting the virus. However, a fast-casual restaurant that requires you to wait in an area with a large group of people isn’t any safer than a sit-down restaurant. And given the number of people who come through a fast-casual restaurant, it’s essential that restaurant staff take the appropriate measures to prevent the virus from surviving on surfaces as well. Says Popescu, “My focus would be on the measures they’re taking to ensure you can safely dine and maintain social distancing, have access to hand-hygiene stations, and what they’re doing to ensure cleaning/disinfection occurs while keeping their staff safe.”

When considering the safety of restaurants, the style of dining doesn’t matter as much as the measures restaurants take to keep staff and diners safe, including requiring appropriate personal protective equipment, cleaning regularly, and restricting the number of customers while making it possible for them to remain socially distant. “I want to emphasize that it’s not just eating at the table,” says Knight. “You also have to keep in mind the waiting rooms, the bathroom lines, all of those things.”

Should you be wearing a mask and gloves at restaurants? How are you supposed to eat with a mask on?

Experts recommend that you don’t keep gloves on when dining out. “You touch the door handle, you touch the countertop — everything you touched with those gloves has now become contaminated,” says Knight. Instead, according to infectious disease epidemiologist Popescu, you should “engage in good hand hygiene” — washing hands periodically with soap and water, or cleansing with hand sanitizer — and avoid touching your face, especially while eating.

As for masks, it’s best to still wear them wherever you can’t engage in social distancing: places like the restaurant entrance, waiting area, or the bathroom, according to Allen.

“Remember, the mask is protecting other people from you,” says Knight. “I can envision having my mask on, I come in, I sit down, I sanitize my hands, the waiter comes over, I put in my order, the waiter leaves, and I take off my mask.”

But don’t try to eat with a mask on, or attempt some complicated ritual of placing your mask back over your mouth after every bite. Doing so “might actually result in accidental contamination or dirtying the mask so it can’t be worn again,” says Popescu.

Does the temperature of the food or how it was cooked make a difference in terms of safety?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the coronavirus is not currently known to be spread through food. As Eater wrote in an earlier guide, restaurants have long been required to follow food safety rules. “Restaurants are already taking specific steps that are enforced by our public health departments to make sure that the risk of foodborne illness is very low, and those steps also reduce the risk of virus transmission,” says Knight. If you trust a favorite restaurant to follow proper food-handling procedures, then you needn’t worry — and if you’re unsure about its practices, you can always check its score on your local health department’s website or call the restaurant to ask.

Knight’s one caveat is to be cautious about self-serve buffets — not necessarily because of the food itself, but because the utensils used to serve that food are likely to be touched by multiple people without proper sanitation in between. In a list of best practices for food businesses during the pandemic, the FDA recommends “discontinuing operations, such as salad bars, buffets, and beverage service stations that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers.”

Should you worry about using utensils, menus, condiments, or other items?

In short, it depends.

“The idea that the virus could be transmitted through inanimate objects, or what we call fomites, is real,” says Allen. The virus can remain infectious on surfaces like plastic, glass, cardboard, or steel for longer periods of time — possibly hours or even days, some scientists have found — although the risk of transmission is still unknown, and it’s not yet clear how much virus a person has to be exposed to in order to establish infection, according to Rasmussen.

Still, experts recommend that restaurants and customers alike think about ways we can move toward a largely contactless experience, whether that means removing regular menus — which are harder to clean in between customers, compared to sterilized dishes and silverware — and replacing them with single-use paper versions; installing touchless sinks and automatic doors; or using disposable plastic utensils.

At the very least, says Knight, be careful handling condiments and menus that are passed from table to table, or picking up silverware and beverages from a common area. And always be sure to wash or sanitize your hands after touching other surfaces and before bringing your hands to your face.

Can you still use the restroom?

Sure, but you may need to adjust some behaviors in order to maintain social distancing, experts say. Customers shouldn’t congregate in lines, restrooms, or other parts of the restaurant without six feet of distance between each other. Ideally, customers would also wear face masks in these common areas. Keeping in mind advice against constantly putting masks on and taking them off while at a restaurant, it’s probably best to limit bathroom breaks to the beginning of the meal, before you’ve removed your mask, or after the meal, when you’ve put your mask back on.

Hand hygiene also remains imperative (here’s hoping you had already made it a habit to wash your hands after using the restroom). The virus has been found in the stool of some people who are diagnosed with COVID-19, although studies have yet to confirm whether or not the virus can spread through exposure to fecal matter, per the CDC. Customers could potentially pick up those fecal particles in restrooms where flushing toilets generate bioaerosols, according to Allen. There are also all the restroom surfaces that you touch, from toilet handles to doors to faucet handles. Restaurants need to make sure that “exhaust fans are operating at high capacity” and do what they can to “make a touchless bathroom experience,” says Allen.

But such measures don’t diminish the importance of washing your hands with soap and water, or sanitizing with alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially after using the restroom and before eating.

Illustration of half of a quarter, nickel, and dime; the other half of each circle is completed by a rendering of a coronavirus. Prakasit Khuansuwan/EyeEm/Getty; TokenPhoto/Getty; MR.Cole_Photographer/Getty
An illustration of an open notebook with handwriting and symbols that represent contact tracing. Akiyoko/Getty; CSA Images/Getty; Ria Fitriana, ID/Noun Project

Are there greater risks associated with cash versus credit card or contactless payment?

In theory, yes, there is a risk, as cash is passed from person to person, but there has not yet been much data on the handling of cash or credit cards when it comes to virus transmission, according to Popescu. Still, contactless payment options are obviously ideal, to avoid having to touch either money or pens and buttons associated with card payment.

Most importantly, though, this question “just emphasizes the need to use hand hygiene and avoid touching your face during these interactions,” says Popescu.

If a restaurant asks you for your contact information — say, for contact tracing — can you say no?

It’s difficult to give a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as legal obligations for restaurants and privacy protections for consumers may differ from state to state, says Mark Bartholomew, a law professor at the University of Buffalo Law School. But generally speaking, restaurants — the majority of which are private businesses — can certainly ask for a patron’s ID or contact information, and customers can certainly refuse, and restaurants can certainly decline to serve those individuals. As Bartholomew puts it: “It’s kind of like, ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service.’”

Just because that’s technically true doesn’t mean that restaurants will necessarily go around asking each and every customer for their personal information, however. Things get trickier when restaurants then have a collection of data that they could potentially retain or share with public health authorities, as one might do for contact tracing in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. But on the other hand, according to Bartholomew, some laws could find a business responsible for allowing in customers with communicable illnesses, without taking proper precautions. “In some ways, it may be appealing for the restaurant to have a flat rule from the local or state authorities saying, ‘You need to take everybody’s temperature when they come in and keep a record of it,’” he says.

It’s prudent to keep in mind that everything remains a moving target, and is subject to change depending on how the situation improves or worsens in different localities. According to Bartholomew, some of these legal concerns could potentially be overridden if governors declare states of emergency that confer powers outside the norm, including requiring businesses to demand certain requirements of customers before serving them.

What can you do to help keep your server and other restaurant staff safe?

The fact is that servers and other employees do face increased exposure risks. It’s also a fact that their places of work need cash flow so that employees can make a living (unless, again, the federal government were to increase direct support for everyone across the U.S.).

But the very fact that these essential workers are on the front lines of risk makes it even more critical for everyone else to do their part in trying to reduce that risk. That means not going to restaurants or other businesses if you’re sick, avoiding touching your face, practicing good hand hygiene, and even asking ahead of time how a restaurant’s management is working to protect their employees, suggests Popescu.

It could also mean making a conscious effort to reduce the number of times you have to interact with restaurant staff, since “every time that waiters come to your table and interact with you in close proximity, that waiter is being put at risk,” says Knight. As noted earlier, he proposes keeping your mask on until you have spoken to the server and put in your order, and then limiting contact with them afterward.

In Allen’s view, the approach to reopening the economy while keeping people safe and healthy can be summed up best as everyone collectively playing an ascribed part. “People going to restaurants should be acting as if they have [the virus] even if they’re feeling fine,” he says. That could include wearing a mask around other people, keeping physical distance from each other, and being okay with processes taking longer than normal. “We have to do our part to give leeway to these restaurants as they’re trying to get back on their feet,” says Allen. “It’s not just the restaurant’s responsibility … [it’s] people coming to the restaurants who have just as much of a responsibility, if not more.”

A generosity of spirit should also extend to material generosity. “Keep in mind that the way the restaurant will work to keep you safe is by reducing the number of diners that they have,” says Knight. In doing so, restaurants will likely still see lower sales, and servers who depend on gratuities still may not earn as much, so tipping is more crucial than ever. “The waiter is putting themself at risk by serving you,” reminds Knight. “Being generous is a good thing.”

And if you can’t return to dining out during this recovery period — whether because of health reasons, or because you’d like to mitigate the risk for yourself and others in your community — how can you support your favorite restaurants and the people they employ without increasing their potential exposure to the virus? Stay home, order takeout or delivery, and, please, still tip as much as you can.

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