Is it safe to eat inside a restaurant?

is it safe to eat inside a restaurant during the pandemic
Photo via Mack Male/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated a number of changes to our everyday lives. Movie theaters, live sports, San Diego Comic-Con, and even restaurants have been forced to alter how they function. Many are operating under reduced capacity, and—in the case of restaurants—have moved much of their service outdoors. It is reasonably safe to dine outside, even as coronavirus numbers begin rising again, but the impending winter weather is bringing a new question to the forefront: Is it safe to eat inside a restaurant?

While some areas could maintain outdoor dining, snowy weather and a drop in temperatures will rob many states of this option. To keep their doors open, some restaurants will have no choice but to lean heavily on take-out, delivery, and dine-in options. The risk of transmission is hugely enhanced when indoors, however, sparking concerns that visits to restaurants this winter may be ill-advised. 

Indoor dining offers considerably enhanced risk of transmission. But as of late Feburary, California was the only state to widely ban indoor dining.

In late November, Los Angeles County banned restaurant dining for both indoors and outdoors for at least three weeks, and on Dec. 11, New York City banned indoor eating only three months after reinstating it.

By January 2021, though, Minnesota went the other direction, allowing indoor dining with limits, and Michigan said it will finally allow restaurants to open at 25% capacity in February (though there are reportedly plenty of eateries that are opened in defiance of Michigan’s guidance).

On Feb. 5, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted all of the state mandates for restaurants and bars, meaning businesses don’t have to limit how many customers are inside their establishments or try to keep them socially distanced. In early March, Massachusetts also lifted any kind of capacity limit for restaurants.

There is no solid data correlating dining at restaurants to a higher risk of infection, but a CDC report from early September found that adults who’ve gone out to eat at restaurants throughout the pandemic are approximately twice as likely to have tested positive for the coronavirus than those who’ve avoided it.

It is difficult to pin the factors behind this higher likelihood of infection to any specific decision, however. Many people who feel more comfortable dining indoors are also more likely to visit other public spaces. As other distancing measures begin to ease, the risk of infection also rises. Some indoor spaces no longer require masks and social distancing, massively increasing the risk of transmission between guests and staff. 

The greatest risk isn’t posed to visiting customers but rather the staff employed in the food service industry. While many customers could avoid infection because of the relatively limited time they would spend indoors, servers, bartenders, and other staff are not so fortunate. 

The recirculated air in restaurants can move respiratory droplets and viral aerosols around a small indoor space. When people visit restaurants, the process of eating and drinking necessitates that masks be removed. This puts them at far higher risk of being exposed to these aerosols, even if they are tables away from an infected person. 

For restaurant staff, the risk is enhanced. While most people visit a restaurant for an hour or two at most, staff wander through a space occupied by unmasked people for hours upon hours a day. Guests also change out consistently, exposing employees to far more risk than a short-term visitor. Kitchen staff are also often forced to work nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, making social distancing all but impossible. Improvements to staff schedules and air ventilation can help with these factors but not eliminate them.

One restaurant in New York City has come up with its own solution: Make every customer take a COVID-19 test before entering the establishment and have them pay the $50 price tag.  

So, is it safe to eat inside a restaurant? The simplest answer is no. If you are determined to visit your favorite spot, however, you can weigh the risks and benefits and make your decision based on the outcome. If you, or anyone you closely interact with, are in a high-risk group, you should avoid dining at a restaurant in any capacity.

If you live in an area with low case numbers and you are not at high risk of complications, you could find a restaurant where you can dine indoors without too much concern. Or as one infectious diseases expert told Nautilus in January 2021, ordering takeout from a restaurant is still “probably safe.”

Even still, NPR reported that the restaurant industry could end up losing more than $230 billion in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Read more coronavirus food news:

Sources: Eater, Inverse, CDC

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