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Is It Safe to Go Out to Eat?

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June 23, 2020 -- Hungry for interaction after a season of quarantine, many are heading into reopened restaurants and bars, eager to sit down for a meal they didn’t cook, at someplace other than home. Yet as coronavirus cases climb now in nearly half of all states, and crowds at some eateries reflect pre-pandemic levels, some wonder: Is COVID on the menu tonight?

According to the FDA, the coronavirus doesn’t appear to spread through food, the way some viruses and bacteria can. Instead, COVID germs travel through respiratory droplets, which means you could get sick if an infected person coughs or sneezes near you. Even just being around someone speaking makes you more likely to get the virus.

So just how safe is that table inside a restaurant?

“Our mantra is the more frequently and more closely you interact with other people, and the number of people you interact with, increases your risk,” says Grant Baldwin, PhD, co-leader of the CDC’s Community Interventions and At-Risk Task Force, COVID-19 Response.

Restaurants are scrambling to recover after May sales plummeted to more than 40% below normal expectations for the month. Yet just a week or 2 after states allowed eateries to resume indoor dining, a number of restaurants and bars are shutting their doors or suspending services once again. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission this weekend temporarily suspended alcohol licenses for 17 bars that violated COVID-19 social distancing protocols. In Virginia, reopening has led to outbreaks among employees at five restaurants, prompting reclosure, Molly O’Dell, MD, communicable disease director for the Roanoke City and Allegheny Health Districts, told reporters in a virtual news conference.

On Monday, June 22, the World Health Organization recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus cases (more than 183,000) since the pandemic began.

Before You Go

When deciding what’s safe and what’s not for your family this summer, Baldwin suggests you check your local, state, and community orders and ask yourself some core COVID-19 questions:

  • Are you or anyone you live with over age 65 or at risk of severe illness? The risk of getting a serious infection from COVID-19 increases with age and certain medical conditions.
  • Do you and those you will be interacting with follow the same steps to prevent infection, such as wearing masks and washing hands?
  • Can you maintain 6 feet of social distance in a reasonable way?
  • How often will you need to share items? Sharing isn’t caring during a pandemic. As a rule, don’t share items. But if you must, are you (or the restaurant) properly cleaning and disinfecting them between each use?
  • What’s the current level of COVID-19 spread in your community? “The lower the level of community transmission, the safer it is for you to go out,” says Baldwin.

CDC Risk Rating

The CDC ranks the risk of COVID exposure and spread in restaurants from lowest to highest risk:

  • Lowest risk: No on-site dining. Food must be delivered or picked up and carried off site. 
  • More risk: Takeout, delivery, and drive-thru orders emphasized. On-site dining limited to outdoor seating with reduced capacity and tables spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  • Even more risk: On-site dining with indoor and outdoor seating. Reduced seating capacity with tables placed at least 6 feet apart.
  • Highest risk: On-site dining with no changes in seating.

When you’re going out to eat, the CDC suggests that you call ahead, not only for reservations, but to confirm that COVID-19 safety measures are being followed. Ask if servers and staff wear face coverings while on duty, and if seating follows social distancing requirements. Restaurants and bars must follow state and local health orders, but the use of CDC safety measures may vary between establishments because owners are allowed to make adjustments based on community need.

Also, ask if it’s possible to preorder your meal so it’s ready for you when you arrive. Doing so helps limit your time spent inside the restaurant. When driving, self-park your car instead of using a valet. Some restaurants now ask that you wait in your vehicle until you receive a text alerting you that your reservation is ready.

While You’re There

A quiet table for two might offer some post-pandemic peace after sheltering in place with the family. But sharing wings and a pitcher of beer with a bunch of gal pals or buddies? The mixing of hands and sharing of items create a hotbed for all germs, including the coronavirus. Two people reaching for the same nacho at the same time makes it too easy to touch hands, and communal bowls of salsa can wind up with surface contamination.

To protect yourself from catching COVID while dining out, the CDC recommends following these tips:

  • Don’t go out if you’re sick.
  • Wear a face covering at the restaurant at all times, except when eating. This includes indoor and outdoor dining areas.
  • Stay 6 feet or more away from others who don’t live with you. Remember to follow this social distancing rule when entering, exiting, using hallways, and hanging out in a waiting area.
  • Don’t use self-service food and drink options. Avoid drinking machines, water fountains, buffets, salad bars, salsa bars, and other common areas -- anywhere people are likely to gather close together, and anywhere another customer or employee is likely to have touched something.
  • Limit the use of shared utensils, buttons, and touch screens.
  • If paying by credit card, bring your own pen to sign the check.
  • Before using toilet areas, make sure the restroom has soap and paper towels, or hand sanitizer made with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash your hands after using the restroom.

Ready to order? Here are some of the things you are likely to see at reopened restaurants and bars.

  • Hand sanitizer stations at the entrance. Some restaurants -- in California, for instance -- may screen you for COVID symptoms upon arrival. A restaurant or bar owner may ask you to wear a mask while inside.
  • Fewer customers, and tables spaced 6 feet apart. Although eateries are allowed to reopen, they still must follow state and local laws regarding reduced capacity and social distancing.
  • An empty tabletop. Napkins, straws, silverware, and glassware should be given to you when you’re seated.
  • Paper or digital menus that are provided to you upon arrival.
  • No salt and pepper shakers or condiment bottles. Ask your server for items that you need.
  • No more freshly made guacamole or other tableside food items.
  • No after-meal mints, candies, snacks, or toothpicks. Your server may offer these, or you can ask if they’re available.
  • No-touch doors and trashcans.
  • To-go boxes filled by customers, not waitstaff.

When You Leave

The best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus or any germs is to properly and regularly wash your hands. When you’re done with your meal, and when you get home, wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 23, 2020

Sources

Grant Baldwin, PhD, co-leader, CDC’s Community Interventions and At Risk Task Force, COVID-19 Response.

CDC: “Personal and Social Activities.”

National Restaurant Association: “Restaurant Sales Remain Well Below Normal Levels, Despite May Uptick.”

John Hopkins University & Medical Center: “Coronavirus Resource Center,” “Daily Confirmed New Cases (3-Day Moving Average).”

World Health Organization: “WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 22 June 2020.”

California Department of Health: “COVID-19 Industry Guidance: Dine-In Restaurants.”

Facebook: WFXR News, June 9, 2020. (Molly O’Dell, MD, with Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts, hosts briefing on local COVID-19 efforts.)

FDA: “Food Safety and Availability During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”

News release, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

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