As the anniversary of the initial pandemic-induced nation-wide lockdowns looms, cities and states throughout the country — including ones that have maintained some level of restriction for months — are reversing course on a number of measures, including restaurant dining bans put in place around the holiday season to combat nationally skyrocketing COVID-19 cases. Restaurants depleted by a nearly year-long crisis are swinging open their doors and welcoming diners back to dining rooms and roadside tables in bids for survival. But the growing government laxity around restaurant dining is not a sign that either practice is necessarily safe, nor that decreasing positivity rates will continue without ongoing vigilance. On the contrary, new variants of the coronavirus, along with more than 100,000 new infections still being recorded nationally each day, may make this moment more dangerous than the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, for workers and diners alike.
There are real reasons to be optimistic, to be sure: Before the end of the year, if a large portion of Americans are vaccinated, life has the potential to look a lot more normal. But as the good news comes, so too do reports of novel variants of the coronavirus being detected in a number of states, such as B.1.1.7, which appears to have originated in the United Kingdom, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “spreads more easily and quickly than other variants.” This highly contagious variant, which seems to potentially be more lethal than was initially predicted and is already spreading across the United States, could be the dominant source of new infections domestically by March, according to the CDC. Another variant, B.1.351, first detected in South Africa, which is both seemingly more contagious and less responsive to vaccines, has also recently been detected in the U.S. And in Brazil, a variant called P.1 is spreading aggressively; especially concerning is the fact that it may be able to evade antibodies and reinfect some people who have previously contracted the virus.
Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, describes the situation in many parts of the country as a “stew of virus.” Though positivity rates are descending, high case counts in all but a few states, along with the appearance of one or more highly contagious COVID-19 variants, increases the risk associated with dining, particularly indoors — a reality that is steeply at odds with government officials making the call to lift restrictions. So now, it’s up to diners to differentiate between decisions made with public health in mind, and those fueled by economic or political pressures. And despite this rush to reopen, many of the old dining guidelines — relying on six feet of spacing, wearing a single cloth mask — may not be enough to prevent infection in places where new variants and high rates of infection are both at play.
What do COVID-19 variants mean for restaurant dining and worker safety?
“I think that all of the measures [to prevent contracting the virus] that we were doing before should still work, but they may work less well,” Liu says. “The B.1.1.7 variant, which is one of many variants that have been found, appears to be about 50 percent more transmissible, which means that it’s much easier to spread from person to person.” Liu explains that while these new variants aren’t expected to spread in new ways — say, through sewage or drinking water — they do make some activities more dangerous. “Any situation where you are taking some risk, including eating in a restaurant, where you spend some time indoors, with others without your mask on, will just become riskier.”
Before the appearance of highly contagious variants of COVID-19, indoor dining already presented a number of elevated risk factors. In addition to being transmitted from close-contact interactions where large droplets containing the virus are expelled, the virus is also carried in tiny droplets known as aerosols, which, according to information the CDC first published in September, “can linger in the air for minutes to hours.” In other indoor settings that allow constant mask-wearing, the inhalation of these particles can often be prevented or limited by the use of a high-quality mask. But eating necessitates unmasking, and when masks come off for long stretches of eating and drinking in close proximity to others, risk — to restaurant workers as well as restaurant workers as well as fellow customers — goes up dramatically. Explaining the risks of indoor dining, Dr. Russell G. Buhr, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Health, told Eater in October that “being in an enclosed space where air is recirculated means that if there are viruses suspended in those aerosols in a room, the longer you spend time unmasked in an enclosed space, the higher the risk of contracting the virus.”
Even in cases where restaurants are following established guidelines like spacing out tables, adhering to maximum occupancy limits, and utilizing a powerful HVAC system to filter and circulate fresh air that disperses viral particles, the risks of dining out are now higher in places where positivity rates are high and more contagious variants are present. The social-distance guideline suggested by the CDC to prevent person-to-person transmission when an infected person “coughs, sneezes, or talks” — six feet — is still a good baseline of protection, but it shouldn’t be treated as a failproof safety measure in crowded spaces, especially when there’s a high density of infection in an area, as well as documented cases of a more contagious COVID-19 variant. “Unfortunately, the [social distancing] guidance of six feet is probably weakened by a more transmissible virus and also by more virus [droplets in the air],” Liu says. “The more people who are sharing that room with you who are infected, the less that six-foot radius is going to be effective.”
Most major cities that have reintroduced restaurant dining are seeing lower positivity rates than they did during and shortly after the holidays. But those same cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, are still documenting thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day. “We’re not seeing dramatic increases in case numbers [due to new COVID-19 variants], but I also don’t want to to minimize the risk of where we are right now, which is still at very high levels of transmission,” says Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the B. Frank and Kathleen Polk Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. With transmission levels high, and variants spreading across the country, dining indoors is one of the highest-risk activities one can do. And while outdoor dining is certainly a safer option, it also comes with some risks.
Is outdoor dining a safe option right now?
As people looked for ways to interact with each other in the early days of the pandemic, there was a general consensus that being outdoors — and therefore outdoor dining — was far safer than eating in a restaurant’s dining room or gathering in the tight confines of a bar. And while outdoor dining is relatively safe on paper, once we’re surrounded by friends or family, we tend to ignore risks that might arise. It can be extremely awkward to ask a friend to put their mask on when they aren’t eating or to sidestep a hug from a loved one. It’s also far too easy to mindlessly endanger restaurant workers carrying the lion’s share of risk, forgetting or simply choosing not to put a mask back on when waitstaff come to take an order or drop off food. These small actions add up, and that’s what concerns Syon Bhanot, a behavioral and public economist and assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College. “In the moment, some of these standards slip, and that’s where I think the calculation goes out the window,” he says. “And then with these more contagious strains, [these seemingly safe actions may lead] to outcomes that we tried our best to avoid.”
Those concerns are compounded by the fact that even when outdoors, a small restaurant table doesn’t leave much room for social distancing with friends from another household, and yet again, masks have to come off to eat and drink. The ability of fresh air to push out lingering infectious particles also depends on the outdoor setups that actually resemble the outdoors, rather than the enclosed structures that struggling restaurateurs in colder climates have erected so they can continue serving diners through the winter. Unfortunately, many of these structures — think yurts, igloos, solariums, and cabanas — prohibit the free movement of air that makes outdoor dining much safer than eating indoors.
A tool developed by the New York Times can help diners assess the risk of activities like dining out on a county-by-county basis. The tool judges the threat of infection in a majority of United States counties to be “extremely high” at the moment, and recommends residents of those areas to avoid outdoor dining and outdoor bars. Would Dowdy make the choice to eat outdoors at a restaurant in, say, New York, where infection rates are still high, and most patio and sidewalk dining is protected by tents or other walled structures? “If [the restaurant is] calling it ‘outdoors,’ but what it really is, is some sort of plastic enclosure… I’m probably not personally going to partake,” he says. “If it’s a very warm day and [the restaurant has] truly outdoor tables that are reasonably spaced from each other, and the people that I’m with are part of my small bubble of people that I interact with, then I would probably be okay with [outdoor dining].”
Even if you’re dining outdoors, wear a mask with a filter, consider layering two masks on top of each other, and pull the mask(s) back over your mouth and nose in between bites. This doesn’t protect just you and your fellow diners, but also restaurant workers, many of whom do not yet have access to a COVID-19 vaccine, have not been able to claim unemployment, and must put themselves at risk of serious illness to collect a paycheck. The least risky option, for you and for restaurant workers? Eat your favorite restaurant dishes from the comfort (and safety) of your own home, and treat tipping generously as a non-negotiable part of paying for your meal.
So, uh, no restaurants? For how long?
The most effective way to minimize risk, slow the spread of new COVID-19 variants, and continue to bend the curve back in the right direction is to just stay home, if your job and other responsibilities permit. But for a population that’s burnt out, exhausted, and yearning for human contact, this is easier said than done. Add to that the desire to support struggling restaurants that are barely staying in business, with little to no government support, and you’re faced with what feels at times like a philosophical and moral quandary.
“I think people are just so worn down,” says behavioral economist Bhanot. “They’re starting to kind of say, ‘You know what? Enough is enough.’ And to a certain extent, I sympathize with that. But at the same time, I would urge people to think about regret aversion.” In other words, Bhanot encourages would-be risk-takers to ask themselves a question that is likely swimming around in the back of their mind already: Is what I’m about to do worth the risk of contracting this virus? This kind of thinking isn’t fun, and it won’t necessarily make the reality of the situation less frustrating or isolating, but it can help put risky decisions into a broader context.
More contagious variants of COVID-19 call for heightened vigilance and, in some ways, adherence to even stricter measures than the ones we’re already so familiar with, even if that means increased solitude for what are, hopefully, the final months of this pandemic. And until vaccines are in the arms of most Americans — including frontline restaurant workers — the best defense is to keep doing what’s worked so far: doubling down on mask-wearing, diligently handwashing, and being mindful of social distancing. As hard as following these measures is, limiting social interaction when it doesn’t feel entirely safe is still the most powerful weapon against the spread of COVID-19. “We have every reason to believe that in a few months, things are going to be a lot better,” says Dowdy. “If people are able to hold out for another two, three months, things are going to warm up. It’s going to be easier to eat outside. We’re going to have the vaccine.”
It’s possible that in the future, coronavirus variants will create new challenges for the vaccination against and control of COVID-19. Much as they have already done, restaurants will have to continue adapting, and diners will too. That may mean, in part, ordering takeout liberally from favorite restaurants when dining in isn’t safe. When possible, order directly from a business, sidestepping ordering and delivery apps that take a sizable chunk of the profits. “You can think of it as doing your part,” says doctor Liu. “A way to help people out during the pandemic is to keep these businesses going.”