Restaurants are slowly returning in many states. Just because you can eat out again, though, does not mean that you should. And if you decide to go back before the virus is under control, it will not necessarily be clear which dining rooms are safest.
Restaurants will have to navigate a situation that is new to them and to the rest of the world. New guidance for restaurant operators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention favors broad principles (“Intensify cleaning, sanitization, disinfection and ventilation”) over specific standards.
“There really is no scientific study” on the best ways for restaurants to reopen following a COVID-19 outbreak, said Dr. Robert W. Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College. Nevertheless, doctors and public health experts have some suggestions for handling the risks of dining out while the virus is still a threat.
— Check your community’s health.
Dining rooms are open again in several states that have not met the criteria for progress against the virus suggested by the White House for a phased reopening. The states’ reopening is a public-policy decision, but going out to eat is a personal one. At the very least, you should check the latest data on coronavirus cases in your city or county before making up your mind.
“I would certainly want to have some awareness of how much transmission seems to be going on in my community,” said Craig W. Hedberg, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. “So if you know that there are new cases continuing to be occurring every day in your community, you have to assume there’s going to be a risk for transmission in public settings.”
— Know your personal risk.
Anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or who has recently come into contact with someone who has had the virus should stay home, Hedberg said. As people leave home more often, gathering in groups will start to seem normal. But it will increase the risk of the virus spreading.
Anyone who falls into one of the high-risk categories identified by the CDC should be especially cautious about going out to restaurants. In particular, older people, which the agency defines as those age 65 and above, “really do have to be extra careful, and their family members have to be extra careful,” Amler said.
— Ask questions before you go.
Just as you would interview a baby sitter you were thinking about hiring, you can quiz a restaurant’s staff in advance about its safety practices or look for a summary on its website or social media accounts.
Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, who has collaborated on a training program to help restaurants in his state manage their response to the coronavirus, said that among the things he would hope to hear are: “We’re taking this seriously. We’ve trained our staff on how to wear masks, on the importance of hand washing and hand sanitizing. We’ve changed what we’re doing to ensure that we’re practicing social and physical distancing to keep you safe.”
— Look around once you arrive.
A fast glance can tell you a lot about how thoroughly the management has responded to the pandemic. “A restaurant that looks exactly like it did before is probably not the kind of restaurant I want to go to,” Chapman said.
Are the tables far apart? Will the chairs permit at least 6 feet of space between customers? Is the restaurant allowing staff or customers to gather in clusters?
“The biggest red flag would just be crowding,” Hedberg said. “If people are crowded near the entrance or around the bar, or there’s a lot of interaction going on between staff and customers in proximity, then obviously they’re not operating in a mode that’s designed to prevent transmission of the virus.”
— Consider a table outside.
The virus spreads readily indoors, as shown by a study of a woman who appears to have transmitted it to nine other people who were eating in the same room of a restaurant in China. Recent evidence suggests that the risk of infection may be lower outdoors. Alfresco dining has other advantages. Chapman pointed out that there may be more space outside to spread out and that all-weather furniture may be easier to rearrange than a fixed booth in a dining room.
— Expect face coverings.
The CDC recommends wearing masks or cloth face coverings when out in public to keep people who don’t know they’re sick from spreading the virus by respiratory droplets. This applies to restaurant workers. “What that shows is that the business is really trying to take the idea of asymptomatic carriers of the virus seriously,” Chapman said.
Eating a meal with a mask on is a challenge. Diners should arrive with face coverings, remove them temporarily to eat or drink, and put them on again before talking. A new study shows that in an unventilated room, droplets produced by normal conversation could linger in the air for as long as 14 minutes.
— Don’t expect gloves.
In many places, the law already requires people who prepare food to wear gloves. That hasn’t changed. For hosts and servers in the dining room, however, gloves are not necessary, and some experts believe they’re a bad idea.
“The real problem is, over a period of time, if you’re using these gloves, you’re going to get a false sense of security,” Amler said. “It’s better to be concerned about your hands’ getting contaminated and to be washing more frequently.”
— Be conscious of shared surfaces.
Although surface contact is not believed to be the primary way the virus spreads, experts still recommend being careful about surfaces that other people may have touched: tabletops, silverware and so forth. Looking at a chalkboard menu might be safer than picking up a laminated one.
If you do touch common surfaces, wash or sanitize your hands and don’t touch your face. Thoughtful restaurateurs will provide sanitizer throughout the establishment, but it’s a good idea to bring your own. If you need to wash your hands in the restroom, Hedberg suggested that its condition may give you an insight into the restaurant’s overall commitment to a sanitary environment.
Picking up a french fry or a burger with your bare hands is permissible, once you’ve taken care of personal hygiene. But you were probably doing that before the pandemic, too. “You should always be washing your hands before you eat,” Hedberg said.
— Relax, but not for long.
Although we often go to restaurants so we can slow down, unwind and forget our worries, the pandemic makes a more businesslike approach advisable. “The longer you stay in an area where there’s this potential for transmission, the greater the likelihood that something could happen,” Hedberg said.
In other words: If ever there was a time to eat and run, this is it.