As more restaurants reopen their dining rooms to customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it's understandable that many have questions and concerns about what these reopenings will look like and how to keep themselves safe should they choose to dine out.
The FDA does not believe that the coronavirus is spread through food or food packaging, but experts weighed in about just how safe it is to dine out currently and what you can do to keep yourself safe.
To start, nothing will be 100% safe until we get a vaccine.
Social distancing was put into place to flatten the curve, which is to say to reduce the rate of infections so that medical professionals have time and resources to treat those who get sick, rather than to make people stay inside until the disease goes away.
Any interaction with others outside of your live-in family unit will pose certain risks, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. You can certainly mitigate those risks, but it's important to accept that they do exist. So people will need to evaluate their own risk tolerance for certain activities.
If you're a person with certain preexisting conditions or live with someone who is in a vulnerable population, you might have different concerns than someone else does. Adalja describes how everyone will need to take stock of their own situation (their health status, location, comfort level, etc.) and generate a type of formula of what kind of risk they're willing to accept.
"Now it's really about trying to decide for yourself what level of risk is appropriate and what level of risk is too much for you specifically to tolerate," he said. "That's going to not be a one-size-fits-all kind of decision."
"We're going to be doing this type of thing until there is a vaccine," he continued. "I think a lot of people substituted the government's social distancing, they kind of misunderstood what it was really about because it really was about hospital capacity. It couldn't have been about this virus going away because this virus established itself in the human population and it's going to be with us until there's a vaccine."
There are still things you can do to prepare before you go out to eat.
All of this is not to say you should completely throw caution to the wind when and if you decide to dine out. Do your research to see what restaurants you already know and trust are putting in precautions to keep diners safe. Try going to a spot you know may not be as crowded or plan to go at a time when not as many people might be there.
Familiarize yourself with CDC guidelines for safer restaurant reopenings. While you won't be able to see certain things behind the scenes, you can certainly see others apparent in the front of the house, such as socially distanced tables, closed-off salad bars, and markers on the floor to keep people spaced out in line. Take note if they mention company policies like reducing the number of staff working at any given time and offering paid sick leave for employees.
That said, a lot of times it will not be up to you to make these calls: Restaurants will be getting directives from state and local authorities on things like social distancing, so it shouldn't be an issue that's left up to you, but it's still worth it to familiarize yourself with best practices.
Many measures we've been practicing for months still apply.
To re-emphasize, reopening does not mean the virus has gone away, so if you decide to go out, you should still be doing so with caution and practicing safety measures that public health officials have been recommending for months. Keep your distance from other people, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, and stay home if you're feeling sick.
You should also wear a mask when you can, especially while waiting in line or interacting with others, but you obviously can't (and shouldn't try to!) wear a mask while you're eating. Jade Flinn, MSN, who is the nurse educator for the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told The Today Show that you can wear a mask while entering a restaurant and while interacting with employees, but that once your food comes and you're ready to eat, you should store your mask in some sort of clean receptacle, put it back on when you're done, and then dispose of it or wash it when you get home.
Dr. Adalja acknowledges that keeping your distance from other diners, especially friends, can seem counter-intuitive because so much of what's great about going out to eat is enjoying the social aspect. Again, it's about assessing your own risk.
"When people are going out to a restaurant, it's sort of to enjoy each others' company," he said: "So the riskiest things you're going to be doing is being around other people, so if there are lines, if bars tend to have more people standing around them, those are going to be more risky, but again, that risk is going to be managed differently by each person."
Outdoor seating is believed to be lower risk.
You might have noticed that many states started reopening outdoor dining areas first, as experts believe that taking dining outside can help lower risk. The CDC currently categorizes outdoor dining as a "more risk" activity, the second on its tier.
It's important to note that just because you're outside, it does not mean you can forget about practicing good social distancing. Many restaurants have started roping off patio tables to give customers more space and some cities have allowed restaurants to move tables into the streets to give people plenty of room. Again, being outside does not magically absolve you of risk, so practice caution.
If you want to try indoor dining, you should note that it "is still amongst the riskier things you can do," Dr. Emily Landon, a hospital epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist at University of Chicago Medicine, told NPR.
Many restaurants will eliminate high-touch and shared surfaces when they can.
The CDC has recommended that restaurants eliminate things like sharing-sized condiments and reusable menus. Though the risk is higher with direct interaction between people, there is a lower — but still present — risk of transmission via contact with these surfaces and many in the general public are worried about them. Because of both of these factors, Dr. Adalja said it makes sense that restaurants would want to eliminate that risk and make people feel more secure.
That said, again, the decision to eliminate these shared surfaces will likely be something the restaurant is dealing with, rather than a decision made on an individual level. Basically, if it makes you uncomfortable, don't use that ketchup bottle on the table even if it's there.
If you're not willing or able to dine out, there are still plenty of ways to support your favorite restaurants
If you're not feeling comfortable about dining out, but you still want to support local restaurants, it's still very possible. Take-out will still be an option (and it also seems like take-out cocktails will be too, in some places!) for those who want to remain home for the time being and assess what they feel comfortable with.
It will unfortunately be a long road ahead for restaurants that will be forced to operate at reduced capacity even as things open up. This is still a great time to keep supporting them through buying gift cards, leaving good reviews, and, yes, when and if you're ready, enjoying a meal out on their patio.