Eating out is on the long list of things that COVID-19 has changed. And as quarantine fatigue sets in, you probably miss dining at your favorite restaurant or drinking at your local bar. But even if those places are open, how safe is it to dine out at a restaurant these days?
It’s a tough question to answer, said Craig Hedberg, professor and interim division head at the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. It depends greatly on the dining out scenario, and many things we know about COVID-19 continue to change.
“This is a situation that’s fluid,” Hedberg explained. “I know everybody is very tired of living with this pandemic, but the fact is that it is still with us, and we need to try to all work together to suppress transmission as best we can.”
Restaurants are some of the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic. While many have implemented safety measures ― limited capacity, enhanced cleaning, temperature checks and social distancing ― other people remain the biggest threat, Hedberg said. And that’s often beyond a restaurant’s control, especially when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 40% of infections are asymptomatic.
Still, adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about “twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant” than those who tested negative, according to a CDC study published in September. A separate study published in November using cellphone data from 10 cities found that restaurants “were by far the riskiest places” for new infections, an author said. And with coronavirus cases rising again across the country, cities and states, including Chicago, San Francisco, New Mexico and Oregon, have suspended on-site dining again.
Today’s dining options ― indoors, outdoors, sometimes even in a plastic bubble ― offer different levels of safety precautions. If you’re wondering whether it’s safe to visit your favorite eatery, we asked health experts to discuss the risks for each scenario and offer tips for making the experience safer.
Indoor dining with reduced capacity: Safety rating of 2/10
The CDC considers indoor dining with reduced capacity and tables spaced at least 6 feet apart to be “higher risk.” That’s because COVID-19 spreads through respiratory aerosol droplets that fly into the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or breathes. Someone else could inhale those droplets and get sick.
Since you take your mask off to eat or drink at a restaurant, the risk goes up. “You’re enjoying the company of your friends, you’re eating, you’re chatting, you’re drinking ― and, while you’re doing that, you and the people around you are potentially putting virus out into the air,” Hedberg explained.
The greater the number of people, the more likely someone in the restaurant has the coronavirus. And, even if they don’t know it, they can spread it to others, said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
To improve ventilation, some restaurants have upgraded their HVAC systems or added air purifiers. Benjamin said these systems likely “help some,” though it’s hard to say how much, since the systems need time to fully filter the air to be effective.
Along with spaced-out seating, some restaurants have added partitions between tables, which Hedberg said could prevent the transmission of larger droplets. Still, smaller particles could drift into common airspace and possibly reach someone else.
Outdoor dining: 9/10
The CDC considers outdoor dining less risky than eating inside. “Within an outdoor environment, the virus can disperse, and so it’s not the recirculation of the same air,” explained Kristen Gibson, associate professor of food safety and microbiology, and a researcher at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Outdoor dining is not risk-free, though. Social distancing is vital, since you’ll be going maskless for a period of time, said Gibson, who’s part of a team of researchers recently awarded a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S.Department of Agriculture to study the effectiveness of restaurants’ COVID-19 precautions.
The CDC suggests restaurants prioritize outdoor dining. But capacity should also be reduced for eating outdoors, and seating should be at least 6 feet apart. Staff need to wear masks at all times, and diners need them when they’re not eating or drinking, according to the guidelines.
Outdoor dining in enclosed spaces: 2/10
In colder weather, outdoor dining may be difficult in some places. To attract visitors and keep them warm, some restaurants are adding heaters or enclosures to their outdoor spaces. But these measures may actually be increasing the risk.
Even with social distancing, enclosed outdoor dining ― whether it’s in an igloo, tent or bubble ― restricts airflow and essentially creates the same risky situation that exists with indoor dining. A smaller enclosure with just you and your dinner date may be safer, but with limited ventilation, the virus could still be transmitted.
“If you’re physically outside, but you put a tent over the dining space that effectively seals all that air in, then you’re really not outside at all,” Hedberg said. “You’re sharing the common air with everybody else who’s in that tent, then it’s really not different from being indoors.”
Open-air outdoor spaces are the safest bet. This winter, look for restaurants with heaters, bundle up and bring a blanket.
Restaurant bathrooms: 2/10
Restaurants usually require visitors to wear masks when they’re moving around, including when they go to the restroom. In that sense, bathrooms may be a little safer than sitting at your table with your mask off. But, sharing a bathroom could be risky, Hedberg said.
Traces of coronavirus have been found in feces, so it’s possible that flushing a toilet could send aerosol droplets into the air. However, the CDC says it’s “unclear” whether the virus in feces could cause COVID-19.
“So, if you have someone who is recovering or is asymptomatic and then goes to the bathroom and doesn’t have good hygiene, that’s certainly a way that it could be transmitted, but we’re just not sure what role that plays,” Gibson said.
If you visit a restaurant bathroom, wear a mask, be quick, clean up after yourself and wash your hands.
How to make dining at a restaurant a little safer
If you’re planning to eat out, follow the usual measures for protecting yourself and others ― wear a mask, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, practice social distancing and stay home if you’re sick or in a high risk group for contracting COVID-19.
The health experts we spoke to also recommend these tips to make the experience safer:
Avoid touching reusable menus, especially plastic ones, unless they’ve been cleaned and disinfected. They could carry pathogens and potentially transmit the virus (and other illnesses).
Stay away from multiuse items, like a touch screen ordering system, unless you can be sure it’s cleaned and disinfected after each use.
Visit at off-peak times so the restaurant is less crowded.
Don’t stay for too long, especially if you’re dining inside.
Make sure tables are spaced out. The CDC suggests seating should be at least 6 feet apart — and that includes bar seating.
Try to witness surfaces being cleaned. Coronavirus particles can stay on surfaces. If particles end up on your hands and you touch your face, it might transmit the virus.
Leave if you’re uncomfortable. If anything makes you feel uneasy, it’s probably best to head home.
Also, be aware of the COVID-19 infection rates in your community, Benjamin stressed. The higher the rate, the greater the likelihood you’ll be around someone who’s infected.
With coronavirus cases surging and winter setting in, Benjamin said it could be another rough few months for restaurants and their employees. He said ordering takeout is likely the safest option.
“You can still support them even if you don’t go in and sit down,” Benjamin said.
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.