Is It Safe to Go Out to Eat? Here’s What You Should Know

Can’t wait to go to your favorite restaurant? Follow these pointers to decide if it’s worth the risk.

empty restaurant table

Updated on June 30, 2020.

Are you sick and tired of cooking at home or eating from a delivery container? Are you craving a change of scenery? As restrictions on businesses loosen across the country, you may feel like going out to one of your favorite restaurants.

But before you rush out the door, remember that the reopening of businesses doesn’t mean that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has disappeared or that it’s any less dangerous than it was a few months ago. Even though local governments across the U.S. are gradually re-opening, recommendations for social distancing, wearing face masks in public and taking other precautionary steps are still in place. So, the more you interact with people outside your “bubble”—those you live with—and the longer that interaction, the higher your risk of getting COVID-19 or spreading the infection to others.

First, assess your risk

It’s important to contemplate whether you should be going out in the first place. Factors to consider include:

  • Your age: Older people are at higher risk for more serious cases of COVID-19 and related complications.
  • Your overall health: If you have underlying conditions—such as lung disease, diabetes, heart disease, diabetes, obesity or a compromised immune system—getting COVID-19 could be particularly dangerous.
  • Your community: How widespread is the disease in the place where you live? Are cases rising or on the decline?

Local guidelines vary, so in many places, indoor dining is not an option. Bear in mind that rising case numbers in many areas of the country could prompt officials to reintroduce more stringent rules or even take away the option to dine outdoors.

If you’re hoping to venture out, following these tips could help ensure your safety.

Do your homework

Before grabbing a bite to eat, it pays to do a little research. Some restaurants are not accepting walk-ins due to limited seating options, so a reservation may be required. Check your restaurant’s website or social media feeds to find out what adjustments they’ve made to their hours, seating rules and safety practices.

If you don’t see anything online, call the restaurant with a few simple questions, such as: What changes have you made to cleaning and disinfecting protocols? Is outdoor seating available and how far apart are tables situated? Are staff members wearing face coverings and taking steps to ensure good hygiene?

Come prepared to the restaurant, too. Bring a bottle of hand sanitizer, plus a packet of disinfecting wipes. And, of course, wear a cloth face covering.

Do a spot check

Simply walking up to the front doors of the establishment should tell you a lot about whether its owners are taking your health and the health of their employees seriously, says Anthony Harris, MD, Chief Innovation Officer and Medical Director of WorkCare, a company that advises restaurants on reopening in the time of COVID-19.

“In some municipalities, the onus is on the restaurant to screen their patrons and to ensure that people are affirming they're not ill before they come into the restaurant,” Dr. Harris says. So, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to have your temperature taken, or to answer a few questions about whether you have experienced COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to anyone with COVID-19 in the previous 14 days.

If there’s a crowd at the front door or in the waiting area when you arrive, put your name in with the host and wait outside to maintain proper social distance.

Once you do get inside, look for these signs that the restaurant is taking the appropriate safety measures. Notice if staff members are wearing protective gear: “For her birthday this past weekend, my wife and I went out to Cold Stone Creamery,” says Harris. “They had masks for all their employees branded with the company logo. It was great to see because it meant that they were intentional about providing adequate protections for their workers. And it very likely meant they’ve put in place other processes to minimize the risk of transmission.”

Look around to see other patrons are wearing masks, too. “Even if it isn’t mandated in some settings, you’ll want to see if the owner is requiring that guests wear masks,” Harris says. Obviously, you can’t cover your face while eating, but mask up when you enter and leave, on trips to the bathroom and if you need to order at a counter.

Opt for outside

When it comes to being seated, ask to sit outdoors. “There’s ample data to show the risk for transmission outdoors is quite a bit lower than transmission indoors,” Harris says.

“That’s predicated on airflow,” Harris explains. “COVID-19 tends to hover in a cloud of about three feet in radius around people’s head and upper body. That cloud is disrupted and dissipated by air flow outdoors, but in an indoor setting, the air doesn't move as well.

If you step into the dining room or outdoor seating area to find tables set close together or the space otherwise too cramped to facilitate 6 feet of room between tables, consider taking your business elsewhere.

Many cities have closed down streets and extended sidewalks to give restaurants more space to set up tables and to allow for social distancing. There’s much less flexibility indoors. In Harris’ view, the plexiglass shields you may have seen in supermarkets or other retail outlets do not work as well for restaurants, so table spacing of at least 6 feet is key.

“As I would tell my Mama: ‘Don't go to that restaurant and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with others at a bar table or at a shared table,’” Harris says. “The increased risk of transmission is in the proximity.”

Limit touchpoints

To help reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spread, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has asked restaurants to discontinue the use of self-serve stations that people touch frequently and tend to crowd around, such as salad bars, buffets and soda fountains.

Tablecloths, napkins and place settings are safe as long as they are replaced between customers. “The typical sanitation process used for dishes and utensils is adequate to kill the virus,” Harris says, as is laundering table linens.

To limit surfaces touched by others, ask for one-time use condiment containers or packets. Avoid handling reusable menus unless they are disinfected between uses. Best practices are single-use printouts or chalkboards posted on the wall.

Wash your hands

Before your food arrives, visit the restroom to give your hands a good 20-second scrub with soap and water. If the line to the bathroom is too long or it isn’t stocked adequately, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

You can also check the wall for a schedule of maintenance of the restroom to get an idea of whether or not the business is following the CDC’s recommendation of daily cleaning and disinfecting.

These days, you may see more no-touch toilets, faucets, soap and paper towel dispensers. You should definitely see fewer hand dryers. “There have been studies to show that the air dryers promote aerosolization of the viral particles,” Harris says. “Disposable paper towels are a move that can benefit everyone.” Remember to use that paper towel as a buffer between your hand and the door handle when opening the door.

When your food arrives

People spread more particles that can transmit the virus by talking than we do while eating and drinking, according to Harris. So, wear your mask until your food or drink comes, then, stash it in a clean place—not on your table or chair or other communal surfaces.

As for the food itself, there isn’t a reason to link its preparation to an increased risk of COVID-19, Harris says. “The pathologic process of the virus has not prompted any changes in the food preparation industries that we have seen, which is good.” The virus causes infection through the respiratory tract, he explains, rather than through the stomach.

Make a clean getaway

Enjoy your meal—but don’t linger. The longer you stay in close quarters with people outside your bubble, the higher the chances for transmission of SARS-CoV-2. When it’s time to pay the bill, ask about touchless payment options. Drop cash or credit cards on a tray to avoid direct contact and bring your own pen to sign the check.

As you settle up, think about dropping a larger than usual tip, too. As stressful as it might be for you to gear up for one dinner out, think about those staffers—wait staff, bussers, cooks and managers—who are spending hours serving others in sometimes less-than-optimal conditions.

Make sure your mask is on before you leave the restaurant and sanitize your hands when you get in the car. Once you’re home, wash your hands and sanitize your keys, phone and other items you touched along the way, just to be safe.

Dining out is a luxury many of us haven’t experienced in a while. While doing so inevitably loosens some social distancing measures, it doesn’t mean you have to leave all your prevention techniques at home with your sink full of dirty dishes.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): People Who Are at Increased Risk for Severe Illness.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Personal and Social Activities: Dining at a restaurant.”
Pete Wells. “Is It Safe to Go Out to Eat?” The New York Times. May 15, 2020.
Thomas A. Russo. “How to lower your coronavirus risk while eating out: Advice from an infectious disease expert.” CNN Travel. June 8, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Best Practices for Retail Food Stores, Restaurants, and Food Pick-Up/Delivery Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Considerations for Restaurants and Bars.”
Tom Bartlett. “Wash Your Hands—but Beware the Electric Hand Dryer.” Wired. March 6, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Safety and Availability During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”

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