A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely gather indoors without wearing face masks. As vaccination rates rise across the country, many restaurants are forgoing mask requirements and social distancing measures, even though few are requiring proof of vaccination.
This leaves many of us wondering how to dine out safely. And if you’re absolutely hellbent on eating in a restaurant, where is the safest place to sit? Is a window seat dramatically safer than one deep inside the building? And if you’ve been vaccinated, does it even matter?
The answers are complex. Scientists are still learning about how well the vaccine keeps you from transmitting COVID-19 to others, and new virus variants are circulating. Not to mention, restaurants often feature complicated ventilation systems that can make each dining room different.
“Where you have to be careful is if the air is flowing and then keeps recirculating ― that could carry the virus from one table to another,” Peter Gulick, associate professor of medicine at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, told HuffPost. “You have to be careful about those situations, especially if you’ve not been vaccinated or you’re immunocompromised, where you still should take all the precautions that were there even before the vaccine.”
Not sure what a red flag would look like? Below, the experts help you know what to look for.
Tables with access to outside air are the safest places to sit
Ventilation is a major factor in COVID-19 transmission. When an infected person coughs, sneezes or even just talks, aerosols float into the air, where they can linger and possibly infect someone else. Good airflow can dilute and whisk away those particles.
“If the door or window is open and allowing fresh air in, that would be a good place to sit,” Ghosh said. “Fresh air dilutes viral particles.”
Many restaurants have worked to improve ventilation during the pandemic, but overhauling their entire systems is costly and unachievable for most, said Corby Kummer, executive director of Food & Society at the Aspen Institute, which recently worked with the restaurant industry developing safety standards and guidelines for indoor dining.
Supplying as much fresh air as possible is recommended in the organization’s ventilation guidelines. Restaurants are also encouraged to add portable air-purifying systems and HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters to HVAC systems.
Look around for open windows and doors before choosing a table, and ask questions about how the restaurant is handling ventilation, Kummer suggested. Some ventilation measures aren’t visible to diners.
“You can see the distance between tables, and you can see open windows,” Kummer said. But also consider this: “Have they gotten their ventilation cleaned? Are there any portable air purifying units?”
Pay attention to the air conditioning vents
Air conditioning can play a role in virus transmission. In a CDC study published in July 2020 on a COVID-19 outbreak at a restaurant in China, an infected person transmitted the virus to people sitting several feet away, likely because they were sitting near an air conditioner intake vent.
“This example shows the importance of ventilation, especially in a restaurant, where you can’t wear masks while eating,” Ghosh said.
Kummer advised avoiding sitting near air intake vents, which are often located on the wall or ceiling above tables. An intake, or return vent, sucks in air and returns it back to the HVAC system. An outflow, or supply vent, blows the air outside and recirculates air into the room.
“It’s OK to be near a vent, just make sure it’s an outflow, not an intake vent,” Kummer said. If you’re not sure, ask before you’re seated.
Depending on the restaurant, sitting near the kitchen could be a safe spot. Kitchens tend to have better ventilation, since building codes often require they have robust exhaust systems that ventilate air upward, Kummer said.
Avoid crowded areas and the bar
The kitchen may be a well-ventilated spot, but it’s also a high-traffic area. Gulick said sitting in an out-of-the-way place, where people aren’t coming and going or gathering, is safer, especially if they’re not wearing masks. That’s his personal preference when dining out, even though he’s fully vaccinated.
“I sit where I’m not in the main” area, Gulick said. “I try to get in a booth that’s in the corner somewhere and I will wear my mask until I get the food. And then when I get the food, I’ll take it off and eat.”
Sitting at the bar is not a good option, Kummer said. “People are really close together,” he explained. “You always want access to your drink. The whole idea is intimacy and proximity to other people.”
Should you worry about where to sit if you’re vaccinated?
With mask mandates and capacity requirements being lifted, Kummer said it complicates the situation, and unvaccinated diners can put others at risk, including restaurant workers.
“I myself am more concerned about diner-to-diner, and diner-to-restaurant worker transmission than worker-to-me,” he added.
Vaccinated people are less likely to get severely ill, be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, according to the CDC. Early research shows that the vaccines could prevent people with no symptoms from spreading the virus to others.
But someone who’s immunocompromised could still carry the virus because their antibody levels might be lower, Gulick said. And there are still some unknowns, such as how long immunity from the vaccine lasts and whether a booster shot will be needed.
Loosening mask restrictions was the CDC’s way of encouraging people to get vaccinated, Ghosh said. She urged anyone, vaccinated or not, planning to dine indoors to pay attention to the vaccination rates in their community and local health department guidelines about mask-wearing and restaurant capacity.
Weigh your own risks before going out and don’t let your guard down, Gulick added. Pay attention to where you sit when dining indoors, and follow a restaurant’s safety rules about seating and wearing masks.
“I know everyone is just dying to get out and be normal again,” Gulick said. “That’s what everybody wants. We want to do the right thing, but everybody has to be cautious about it so we don’t take two steps forward and then go backward.”