What’s the Safest Way to Eat at a Restaurant Amid COVID-19?

As cities begin to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant industry is also welcoming customers back to its tables and we’re getting a glimpse of our new normal. But should you really go out to eat while the coronavirus pandemic continues? And if you do, what steps can you take to make sure you stay safe?

Business owners have a responsibility to their employees and customers to create as safe an environment as possible. So, start by doing some research ahead of time to see what precautions the restaurant is taking. Do they have outdoor seating? Are they only taking reservations to avoid crowding while people wait? Are they encouraging staff to take paid sick days if they’re not feeling well?

Most of this isn’t in your control, but you can choose restaurants that have made these precautions a priority. There are also some actions you can take to keep yourself safe when you’re out, like wearing a mask when possible and keeping up your hand hygiene. And, of course, wherever you go, tip your servers well.

Restaurants pose some unique risks.

The new coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 infection, is spread mainly via respiratory droplets that people expel when coughing or sneezing. So, wearing a mask is one of a few important public health behaviors we can take right now that drastically reduces the chances of spreading the coronavirus—especially if you’re in close proximity with another person for more than a few minutes.

However, at a restaurant, you won’t be wearing a mask while you’re eating, nor will other patrons. And you’ll be sitting very near the people you’re going out with. That means you likely won’t be able to maintain two of our most useful precautions—social distancing and wearing a mask—while dining at a restaurant. So, considering COVID-19, a restaurant may create some unique opportunities for the virus to spread.

Therefore, the first step in going out to eat (or going anywhere in public, really) is deciding how essential this activity is to you, Lindsey Gottlieb, M.D., director of infection prevention at Mount Sinai Morningside, tells SELF. Is it worth the risk to you, personally? Is it worth the risks to those you live with, the other customers at the restaurant, and the employees? For some people, going to a restaurant may have real emotional or mental health benefits, and they may decide that it’s something they still want to do. But for others, take-out or delivery is just fine.

If you do decide to go out to a restaurant while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there are some ways to make the activity a bit safer.

Sit outside if at all possible.

You’re less likely to spread the virus if you’re outside in an area with open airflow than if you’re in a closed, cramped indoor area, Humberto Choi, M.D., a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. So, he says, eating outside in a patio area is safer than eating inside. And, now that summer is here, many restaurants have already made strides in opening outdoor eating areas.

Only eat out with the people you live with.

Recognize that going out to eat right now will not be like the Before Times. To avoid the spread of the coronavirus, it’s smart to only eat with the people you already live with, meaning you shouldn’t meet up with friends for dinner, Dr. Choi says. That way, if someone in the group is infected, they won’t be exposing anyone who wouldn’t likely already have been exposed just via shared living spaces.

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