Thanks to all the common spaces, as well as the horde of hands that touch your plates, utensils and glasses, you may be wary of the germs lurking around restaurants. In the era of the novel coronavirus pandemic, dining out is even more dicey, since there's a risk you'll contract or spread the virus.
Frequenting places where many people congregate, such as restaurants and fast-food chains, can also increase your chances of catching the virus. As this public health situation rapidly changes and evolves, with restaurants reopening in some areas (while closing up again in others), you'll need to stay informed and take extra precautions when eating outside your home to protect yourself and others.
If you don't want a side of microorganisms with your main dish, read on for expert ways to avoid contracting (or spreading) germs at a restaurant.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
1. Decide Whether Dining Out Is Worth the Risk
First things first, your risk level definitely depends on where you reside. While infection rates in some states have fallen, resulting in fewer restrictions and more restaurants resuming service, others have seen spikes in new cases and have halted (or rolled back) their plans to reopen eateries.
"At this point, since the virus is still circulating and we are seeing an increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, people should be doing takeout or curbside pickup when available to keep themselves and restaurant staff safe," Brandon J. Brown MPH, PhD, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the Department of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health at the University of California, Riverside, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Your best bet is to stay up on your state and local guidelines. And if COVID-19 is spreading in your community, reconsider your dining plans, especially if you're deemed high risk for the coronavirus. As a reminder, this includes individuals 65 years of age or older, people with chronic medical conditions or those with a suppressed immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
By ordering in, "you can still support your favorite restaurants and enjoy delicious food, but lower your risk and the risk of others," Brown says.
2. Research the Restaurant
In communities where onsite dining is permitted, do a little sleuthing to see what COVID-19 prevention practices your restaurant has in place. Begin by checking the eatery's website and social media, where, ideally you will find current info about their safety guidelines, per the CDC.
Before dining out, Brown suggests first asking the following important questions to help you understand the level of risk:
- What are the restaurant's social distancing rules? When possible, customers and staff should maintain the 6-feet rule, Brown says. That means tables should be spaced at least 6 feet apart. Likewise, employees should keep their distance from each other as much as they can.
- Does the restaurant require face coverings for staff? Face masks should be mandatory for restaurant staff, especially when physical distancing is difficult, say, in smaller spaces like the kitchen, per the CDC.
- Is there seating available outside? Eating outdoors is safer than indoor dining (more on this later).
- What type of plating and utensils are being used? Single-use, disposable utensils are preferable, per the CDC. While it's not ideal for the environment, this reduces the points of contact and amount of hands that touch utensils. If this isn't feasible, non-disposable items should be handled with gloves and washed with dish soap and hot water or in a dishwasher.
- What are the hand-washing rules for employees? Staff should be required to suds up with soap and water frequently, especially before, during and after preparing food or touching garbage, according to the CDC.
- How often do employees sanitize surfaces? Shared objects and frequently touched surfaces like tables, countertops, receipt trays and condiment holders should be cleaned and disinfected between each use, according to the CDC.
- Does the restaurant perform temperature checks for employees entering work and customers at the door? This extra precaution could help catch people experiencing early symptoms of the coronavirus, like a slight rise in temperature, who may be infectious.
3. Wear a Mask
"It's not possible to wear a mask while eating, which is the main reason why I would opt for takeout versus eating at a restaurant," Brown says. The problem is, COVID-19 spreads predominantly through respiratory droplets from talking, sneezing or coughing. So, there's a good chance that germs are circulating in the air when people eat their grub and gab.
That said, if you're sold on dining out, wear a mask when entering and exiting the restaurant, whenever you're not eating or drinking or when going to the restroom, Brown says.
Always use hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol) before and after you remove your mask (and before and after you put it back on your face). Basically, slather on sanitizer any time you touch it. And handle your mask by the ear loops or ties (i.e., don’t touch the front of it) so you don’t mistakenly contaminate it.
Remember, staying masked can help mitigate your risk of being infected — or unintentionally infecting someone else — with the coronavirus. In fact, sporting a face covering is the top tactic for slashing the spread of COVID-19, per a June 2020 analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
4. Don't Let Your Utensils Touch the Table
To avoid a mouthful of microbes, make sure your utensils never make direct contact with the table. That's because tabletops tend to be some of the germiest spots in eateries, according to University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, who cites his own research published in Food Protection Trends, which found that 70 percent of tabletops in bars and restaurants harbored harmful bacteria.
The situation becomes especially sticky — and your risk for getting sick potentially increases — when you consider that COVID-19 germs may linger on surfaces for as long as several days, according to the CDC. While touching contaminated objects doesn't appear to be the primary route of transmission for the coronavirus, you can't rule out the possibility of becoming infected this way and should still take proper precautions to protect yourself.
But don't servers wipe down tables after each customer? Yes, but that's part of the problem. Gerba's study discovered that almost 90 percent of dishcloths used to clean tabletops tested positive for coliforms (a type of bacteria found in poop), while 54 percent contained E. coli.
That may be in part because staff don't use proper disinfectants or, if they do, they're not allowing enough time for the disinfectant sprays to take effect, Gerba says.
OK, but what if your fork only touched the table for a few seconds? "I know that many still use the '5-second rule' to distinguish whether or not to use or consume an item after contact with a surface, but, unfortunately, microbes tend not to obey these rules," says Jason Kindrachuk, PhD, a virologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
Rather than risk infection, it's better to be safe and ask your server for a new set of utensils.
5. Clean Your Hands Frequently
To protect yourself and others, the CDC recommends that you scrub your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (or the time it takes you to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice) upon entering and exiting an eatery.
But keep in mind, public restrooms present a problem for the possible transmission of the coronavirus. Multiple stalls increase your odds of encountering more patrons who might be positive for COVID-19. If possible, stick to single-stall bathrooms to avoid contact with others.
Either way, wear your mask, use paper towels to prevent touching dirty door handles and faucets and, if you need to use the facilities, put the toilet lid down before you flush. While more research is required, it's possible that COVID-19 is active in feces, according to a May 2020 paper in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. This means that you can potentially aerosolize the virus when you flush.
That said, rather than making several trips to the restroom to lather up and risking exposure, it might be wiser to rely on hand sanitizer instead.
Bathrooms aren't the only hotspot for bothersome bugs in a restaurant. Throughout the course of a day, menus pass through scores of fingers. And every pair of hands leaves behind some trace of germs that could make you sick.
In fact, a July 2015 study in the Journal of Food Safety discovered the presence of staph and E. coli on restaurant menus — which were then transferred to customers' hands — and that these bacteria survived for at least two days. That's why, to reduce the potential spread of germs like the virus that causes COVID-19, the CDC recommends that restaurants get rid of reusable menus in favor of those that are disposable or digital.
But what if that's not an option and you're stuck with the same old shared menu? "Your best defense is washing your hands before and after a meal," Kindrachuk says. But, again, disinfecting with hand sanitizer sounds like a safer bet when you consider all the potential pitfalls posed by using a shared restaurant restroom during the coronavirus pandemic.
To ensure its effectiveness, rub the hand sanitizer over all the surfaces of your hands (the back of your mitts, too) until they're dry, the CDC says.
6. Cool It on the Condiments
Condiments like salt and ketchup don't add much to the nutrition value of your meal, and grabbing the shaker or bottle may not be the best idea either.
Case in point: A September 2017 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found coliforms and aerobic bacteria — types of common fecal bacteria that contribute to foodborne illness — lurking on the surface of salt shakers and ketchup bottles at restaurants.
If you can't live without your condiments, consider tossing a few individual packets in your bag to use instead. Or at least sanitize your hands after you touch them (just make sure you're using a quarter-size dollop of a sanitizer that's at least 60 percent alcohol).
7. Wipe Down Highchairs
Ever thought about all the dirty little fingers and poopy diapers that have occupied a restaurant highchair? Unfortunately, kids' highchairs are often cesspools swarming with nasty germs, Gerba says.
Come prepared with disinfectant wipes (make sure they're at least 70 percent alcohol, per the CDC). Before you sit your little one's butt in a booster seat, wipe down all the surfaces of the highchair, paying special attention to the attached tray where fingers and food may touch.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- Food Protection Trends: “Identity and Numbers of Bacteria Present on Tabletops and in Dishcloths Used to Wipe Down Tabletops in Public Restaurants and Bars.”
- Journal of Food Safety: “Recovery, Survival and Transfer of Bacteria on Restaurant Menu.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “When and How to Wash Your Hands.”
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Bacterial Presence on Common Objects at Bar-and-Grille Restaurants.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "COVID-19: Resources for Households"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Personal and Social Activities.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Considerations for Restaurants and Bars.”
- PNAS: “The airborne lifetime of small speech droplets and their potential importance in SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”
- PNAS: “Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19.”
- International Journal of Infectious Diseases: “Potential Fecal Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Current Evidence and Implications for Public Health.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings.”