About a third of all Americans have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. If you’re one of them, you’re probably ready to get back to some semblance of normalcy, and visiting your favorite restaurant may be at the top of your list.
But is it actually safe to dine inside a restaurant after getting vaccinated? Should you wait until vaccination rates in your area increase?
Lots of questions surround what you can, can’t or shouldn’t do after getting vaccinated. To help, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance in late March. The agency says people can gather together indoors without wearing masks once everyone involved has been fully vaccinated ― meaning it’s been two weeks since you received the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or a single Johnson & Johnson shot. You can also hang out indoors with others who haven’t been vaccinated, if they’re not in a high-risk group for contracting the virus.
Whether those rules extend to restaurants is a tough question, said Donald Milton, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
“The problem in the restaurant is you can’t assume that everybody else in the restaurant is vaccinated,” Milton told HuffPost. “Now, if you are going into a restaurant at odd hours, there’s nobody else in there but you and the wait staff, and they’re wearing masks, that’s clearly not going to be a big risk. Going to a crowded restaurant, you’re basically hanging out with a lot of people outside of your bubble and you don’t know what their vaccination status is.”
Making the situation more complicated is that some states, including Texas and Mississippi, have lifted their mask mandates and raised indoor capacity limits, and every state has its own guidelines for pandemic restaurant dining. And, scientists continue to learn more about how the COVID-19 vaccines prevent the transmission of the virus.
Experts suggest weighing your risks before dining out at a restaurant, even after you get vaccinated. That means understanding the vaccines, paying attention to transmission and vaccination rates in your area, and not getting lax on safety precautions, such as wearing a mask and social distancing.
Does getting the vaccine make dining out safer?
Before the vaccines were available, a Stanford University study suggested that full-service restaurants and cafes were superspreader sites, with people gathered indoors in close proximity without wearing masks for prolonged periods of time.
Dining out after you’ve been fully vaccinated is likely safer. A new CDC report revealed some good news ― that the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective at preventing asymptomatic and symptomatic infections, suggesting that transmission from asymptomatic infections isn’t likely. This allays initial uncertainty about whether asymptomatic transmission was possible after getting vaccinated.
“Currently, we think two weeks after they’ve been vaccinated, there is very minimal to no risk of severe illness, which means hospitalization or death,” said Joan Duggan, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “The expectation is that with vaccination, you’re not going to spread the virus.”
Still, there are many unknowns. And even vaccines with the highest efficacy against symptomatic disease aren’t 100% effective.
What if you’ve only received one of your two shots?
If you’ve only received the first shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, you’ll have some protection. CDC research shows the first dose alone is about 80% effective two weeks after you receive the shot, compared with about 90% after both doses.
Stick to outdoor dining if you can
The CDC lists indoor dining as a “higher risk” than outdoor dining, and the government’s top health official Anthony Fauci said in February that he hasn’t eaten out even after getting vaccinated, preferring to stick to takeout.
But if you’re dining outside and wait staff are wearing masks, and you’re sitting at tables spaced more than six feet apart, it’s pretty safe, Duggan said.
“Outdoor dining is definitely safer than indoor dining, and ventilation plays a huge part in this,” Duggan said. Increased airflow and ventilation reduce the risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.
With indoor dining, it’s often tough to know what type of ventilation system the restaurant is using, said Valerie Lowe, system director of Pipeline Health for the Los Angeles market. Without proper ventilation, the virus could spread, even if restaurant diners are sitting far apart, since the virus spreads through respiratory droplets that float through the air.
A vaccine doesn’t replace the need for safety precautions
Regardless of whether you’ve been vaccinated, Lowe said restaurants and their diners still need to follow the safety measures public health experts have been emphasizing for the past year.
“They still need to be masking up, they still need to be cleaning their hands and doing all of those things to stay safe while dining out,” Lowe said. “Nothing’s changed as far as that goes.”
The vaccine just adds protection, Duggan said. “We’re looking at gradations of risk from lowest risk to highest risk. The vaccine adds an extra layer of protection on top of that, but we can’t say with certainty that it obviates the need for the other layers of protection.”
Even after getting vaccinated, keep these other safety precautions in mind:
Make sure restaurant staff are wearing masks.
Watch for tables, menus and other items being cleaned.
Wear a mask when you get up from your table, such as if you’re going to the restroom.
Check for physical barriers between tables or that tables are at least six feet apart.
Visit restaurants at off-peak times when it’s not as crowded.
Dine with people who’ve been vaccinated and are in your bubble.
Track your area’s transmission and vaccination rates
The more people who get vaccinated, the more likely we can achieve herd immunity and COVID-19 transmission rates will drop.
“That’s what’s really going to turn the tide and make things safer over time is the amount of people that are vaccinated,” Lowe said. “Certainly, the more people that get vaccinated ― be they people in the restaurant or workers in the restaurant ― that’s going to help break down that transmission rate and more people are less likely to be infectious.”
So, it’s a good idea to keep track of the number of vaccinations and virus cases in your area, information that’s usually available on your state health department’s website. The higher the vaccination rate and the lower the number of new cases, the safer it may be to dine out, Duggan said.
“This is a moving target, so right now, there’s no way that a recommendation that if you do A, B and C, you have zero risk,” Duggan said. “So, we’re trying to look at this in layers or risk. Eating outdoors with waiters wearing masks and adhering to the CDC’s recommendations, you’re probably at your lowest risk for getting COVID during a dining experience.”
But it’s a rapidly changing situation, Duggan emphasized. “You need to stay alert in order to stay safe and to keep people safe. Educating yourself is the best thing you can do.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.