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Is it Safe to Eat at Indoor Restaurants?

Eating out at restaurants takes on a whole new meaning this days. When it comes to COVID-19 risk, we know that activities that put you in close proximity to other people while not wearing masks, especially indoors, significantly increases risk of transmitting or contracting the virus. One setting where this is particularly true is at restaurants, yet many people are still choosing to dine indoors and outdoors during the pandemic.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in September that found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were two times more likely to have eaten out at a restaurant in the two weeks before they got sick. The report did not ask participants to report whether they dined indoors or outdoors at a restaurant, but the CDC and other health authorities say that any dining setting where people are in close contact with each other without masks presents risks.

The risks of dining at restaurants

Eating indoors in a restaurant is a higher risk activity. Several risk factors are coming together with indoor dining: being indoors, prolonged conversations and frequent mask removal. Until someone invents a mask that you can eat in, while still capturing respiratory droplets, that risk remains.

The major risk factors for dining at restaurants are the fact that you’re indoors, close to other people and unable to wear a mask. Even if you’re dining with people you live with, you will also likely come into contact with others outside your household during the dining experience.

Sharing contact with objects including food is probably a lesser risk but may also compound the situation.  Also adds that the link between dining out and COVID-19 transmission could be connected to other factors, like if people who eat out right now are less risk, in general than those who do not. “Specific spreading events have been linked to indoor dining, so viral transmission with indoor dining is likely contributing to cases, to some degree. In addition, people who dine indoors at restaurants may also be less risk-averse in their behavior beyond restaurants, compared to people who are avoiding indoor restaurant dining entirely right now”.

Dining out is a high-risk activity during the pandemic, opting for takeout poses a much lower risk. But if you do decide to dine indoors, you should look for to reduce risk. Also keep in mind that,  intervention reduces risk to different degrees, but none are perfect. When it comes to indoor dining, multiple interventions need to be used together.”

Ideally, the restaurant has a mask policy where staff are required to wear masks, and guests should wear masks until food arrives and they are eating or drinking. “A mask policy that maximizes the proportion of time everyone in the restaurant spends masked will add to safety incrementally”.

Tables should be spaced at least 6 feet apart “[Social] distancing is also worthwhile, but should absolutely not be relied upon as the sole safeguard when indoors,” . Some restaurants are installing plastic or plexiglass barriers between tables to help prevent the virus spreading, which can be helpful, but she says the best practice is to ensure multiple safety measures are implemented at once, i.e., masks, distancing and barriers between tables.

Many restaurants are required to stick to low capacity for the number of guests allowed in at a time, but not all places are implementing this. As a rule, try to dine at off-peak hours when it’s less likely to be crowded.

Eating out at a restaurant requires you to be in close proximity to others you are dining with, so you should carefully choose which people you eat with. “Consider who your dining companions are, who their contacts have been, and how you can’t tell if people are infected by how they look and how they feel,”.

If you’re dining with someone who engages in more high-risk activities, then you are also at risk. The safest option is to dine with people who live in your household or who are in a “quarantine pod” with you, so everyone is on the same page when it comes to safety.

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