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Who Is Most at Risk in a Restaurant?

Whether dining inside or outside, diners should consider the risk they pose to restaurant staff

A waiter wearing a mask and face shield carries a tray of plastic food containers
A Mexico City waiter armed for service
Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk about risk. Public health officials urge everyone to consider not only their own safety, but also the risks they impose on others by going about their daily lives.

Yet a person sitting at a restaurant can’t see all the ways they threaten restaurant employees, making it hard for many to weigh the ethics around supporting restaurants and keeping people safe. Before deciding how to visit a restaurant (or whether to do so at all), a diner should first understand how they might endanger the people around them, just to enjoy a meal in public.

A restaurant employee may be more or less likely to catch the novel coronavirus from a customer depending on their position. Hosts, bartenders, servers, and any other front-of-house workers take the greatest risk by sharing indoor space with customers, who may or may not show symptoms even if they’re infected with COVID-19. “Servers who have high person-to-person contact — because that’s where there’s a significant concern — would likely be at higher risk than those that are at the back of the restaurant in the kitchen,” says Barbara Kowalcyk, assistant professor of food safety and public health at the Ohio State University.

But all restaurant workers are in some danger when diners carelessly eat out. Jeff Martin, environmental health supervisor of Multnomah County, Oregon, compares COVID-19’s potential to spread to other outbreaks at restaurants. “I’m always thinking about how we have norovirus outbreaks, and it spreads so easily throughout the restaurant. It goes from person to person, booth to booth, menu to menu,” he says. While he makes clear he hasn’t quite seen COVID-19 spread in the same way in restaurant settings, the novel coronavirus has been shown to quickly explode from one infection given the right conditions.

“It’s important to remember that ventilation and airflow are really important in the spread of COVID-19,” Kowalcyk adds. Depending on the placement of the kitchen and the setup of the restaurant’s ventilation system, airflow could carry pathogens from the dining room back to the kitchen, endangering kitchen staff and other back-of-house workers.

“What [customers] do will impact the entire restaurant,” Martin says. If they refuse to wear a mask whenever they’re not actually eating, or if they dine out despite feeling ill, risk goes up for everyone in the restaurant. If diners sit outside, on the other hand, they slightly reduce the risk of person-to-person exposure for servers, since experts agree the virus cannot travel as far or remain viable in outdoor environments. Outdoor seating also eliminates ventilation systems as a means of transmission.

Still, seating diners outside doesn’t entirely extinguish risk for employees. In Philadelphia, restaurants are only allowed to serve guests outside, but even with that stipulation, Matthew Rankin, a spokesperson for the city’s public health department, says kitchen workers are still in danger due to transmission among staff. According to Rankin, A server interacting with customers could become infected and then unknowingly pass on the virus to other employees, like cooks and dishwashers, if they can’t maintain six feet of distance.

But compared to servers and cooks, delivery workers can provide food with less risk to themselves and customers (though delivery workers, like back-of-house workers, may still have some exposure to the virus if they interact with restaurant employees who directly face customers). Even as Philadelphia allows outdoor dining, the city encourages restaurants to promote their delivery and takeout businesses to reduce crowds. “These interactions are brief and can be performed with minimal interaction via food delivery payment apps,” Rankin says.

If customers are choosing between delivery and picking up food to-go, Kowalcyk recommends contactless delivery with payment online as the least risky option. While picking up food to-go is still safer than an extended dining interaction at a restaurant, it may still require customers to touch various surfaces — such as door knobs and payment devices — and will expose them to other people.

“The less physical contact we have, the better,” Kowalcyk says. “Having somebody drop food off on my doorstep is better than curbside pickup, which is better than me running into the store in a closed ventilation system, which is still better than me sitting in that closed indoor environment while I eat. None of them are risk-free, but some of them are lower risk.”

Even if a diner understands how COVID-19 spreads and believes they can mitigate transmission, no one can be entirely confident they aren’t unintentionally exposing food workers by dining in or ordering out. There’s just not enough information to eliminate all risk. “This situation is quickly evolving and we’re literally learning something new each day about COVID-19, how the virus behaves,” says Jessica Guernsey, public health deputy director of Multnomah County. “We’re in a fast-moving environment in terms of information.” And as diners decide how to responsibly patronize a restaurant, Martin and Guernsey agree they should pay particular attention to respecting the preferences and safety of restaurant workers.

“We’re in a new social compact with one another right now,” says Guernsey. “Protecting people as much as possible, supporting businesses as much as possible, and finding new ways to do that.”