If you've been stuck at home — or in your backyard — eating takeout for months now, the idea of dining out with friends may sound, well, fantastical. Restaurants have reopened across the country, but in the era of COVID-19, just because something is open for business doesn't necessarily mean it's safe.
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In fact, looking at more than 1,800 patients from 11 health care facilities revealed an association between being positive for COVID-19 and dining out, per a September 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Keep in mind that this association doesn't mean that going to a restaurant is the reason people tested positive, and that this study did not distinguish between indoor and outdoor dining. Still, it's possible that eating and drinking outside of your home may be a risky behavior, per the report, because in order to do those activities, you have to remove your mask.
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But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to forgo dining out. Here's what experts have to say about the steps you should follow before going to a restaurant.
1. Check Local Infection Rates
The first thing to think about before you venture out for dinner is how widespread COVID-19 is in your community. A good rule of thumb is to look at average cases in your immediate area.
"In your zip code, it should be less than five a day, in your city less than 10 a day and in your county less than 20 a day," advises infectious disease expert William Haseltine, PhD, chair and president of ACCESS Health International and author of A Family Guide to COVID.
You can track the novel coronavirus levels in your city or region using the search function on COVID Act Now, as well as resources from your local health department.
But even if rates are low, you should only eat outdoors.
"It's generally not safe to eat indoors, because the virus may linger in the air as small aerosols for a long time, even if only a single person is infected," Haseltine says.
2. Take Precautions
If the novel coronavirus levels are relatively low in your community, then it's reasonable to consider a meal outdoors, provided you take some safety precautions.
If you're not fully vaccinated, consider dining only with people who are in your immediate household, or part of your quarantine "pod." (Pods act as an extension of your household — people within this small extended network hold off on following social distancing guidelines with each other, while still observing them with anyone not in the pod.)
If you've gotten the COVID shot, the CDC says you can gather maskless with other people. But if you haven't, don't use an outdoor restaurant as a way to catch up with friends you haven't seen since pre-lockdown.
"There's no way to safely social distance when you're eating together at the same table," points out Robert Quigley, MD, an infectious disease specialist at International SOS, a global medical and travel security services company.
If you want to see other pals, grab takeout and meet for a socially distanced dinner date (read: at least six feet apart) in your backyard.
3. Pick a Restaurant Carefully
If all the indicators point to dining out being safe in your community, here's what to look for in a restaurant to make sure it's as safe as possible.
Tables That Are at Least 6 Feet Apart
Six feet is often bandied about as a magic number, but in reality it's just the minimum distance required by the CDC for safe spacing, points out Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh, FACP, an infectious disease specialist at Yale Medicine.
This is because while most respiratory droplets tend to settle out of the air within six feet, they may still be able to travel farther. When a person with COVID-19 ate in an indoor restaurant in China, the individual was still able to infect people who sat more than six feet away, per a July 2020 study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Think of six feet as the absolute minimum distance to maintain from others who are dining nearby. And keep in mind that while there are fewer risks outdoors, they're still not non-existent, Dr. Ogbuagu says.
A Single Server for Each Table
Every employee you see in that restaurant should be wearing a cloth face covering, Dr. Ogbuagu says.
But ideally, the restaurant should have just one server for each table who does everything — this means a single person acts as your waiter, bartender and busser, all in one.
While many restaurants don't require you to wear a mask at the table, especially if you're eating outdoors, you should still consider donning it while you're sitting waiting for your food, as a courtesy to your server.
"It will help prevent you from transmitting the virus to your server if you're pre- or asymptomatic," Quigley says.
As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to food workers, check restaurants' social media pages for updates on the vaccination status of their employees.
The Ability to Order in Advance
The longer you're exposed to someone who is infectious, the greater your risk of developing COVID-19, says Kenneth Rondello, MD, MPH, clinical associate professor of public health and emergency management at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.
Rather than stand around outside the restaurant, or at the bar, give the staff your phone number and take a short stroll or sit in your vehicle until your table is ready. To limit the time you spend sitting at the table, you could also give the restaurant your order in advance, per the CDC.
The restroom in a restaurant may seem best avoided. "There are so many high-risk contact surfaces — door handles, sink faucet knobs, the paper towel holder, even the button on the air dryer," Dr. Rondello notes.
Still, you should wash your hands when you arrive at the restaurant, according to the CDC. Use a paper towel to open the door after your hands are clean, or consider using hand sanitizer instead of stopping by the restroom. (Make sure to dollop on hand sanitizer that's at least 60 percent alcohol, per CDC guidelines.)
Plenty of Disposable Items Available
Ideally, everything on the table — whether it's the utensils, tablecloth or condiments — should be disposable, according to the CDC.
"Think about your doctor's office — some of the most commonly used items are only used once," Quigley says.
Even if items are laundered, put in the dishwasher or disinfected, chances are they will be traveling through multiple hands before they find their way to your table, which raises the risk of infection.
The safest way to surf the menu is for the restaurant to offer QR code technology, which means a laminated menu is placed in the center of the table and you place your phone in the air on top of it so that the menu appears on your phone, Quigley says.
If they don't, then disposable menus that are thrown out after each use are the second safest bet. Contactless payment options are key, too, he adds.
If a touch-free payment system isn't available, place your card directly on a receipt tray, rather than handing it to your server, to avoid any hand-to-hand contact (and bring your own pen to sign receipts), per the CDC.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- Emerging Infectious Diseases: "COVID-19 Outbreak Associated with Air Conditioning in Restaurant, Guangzhou, China, 2020"
- COVID Act Now: "America’s COVID Warning System"
- CDC: "Considerations for Restaurants and Bars"
- CDC: "Personal and Social Activities"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Social Distancing"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Community and Close Contact Exposures Associated with COVID-19 Among Symptomatic Adults ≥18 Years in 11 Outpatient Health Care Facilities — United States, July 2020"
- CDC: "Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People"