How do I safely go out to a restaurant?

Last updated June 15th 2020, 1:33:04am

The weather is getting warmer, your state is reopening, you’ve been dutifully staying in your home for the past several weeks—we get it, you’re probably wondering whether you can (finally) eat out at your favorite restaurants. Deciding where you want to go—and whether you should go out at all—is a matter of evaluating the risks involved and making informed choices for you and your family.

First, think about any risk factors for you and your family. Do you have pre-existing medical conditions (e.g. immunodeficiency disorders, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, liver diseases, lung diseases) that would increase the severity of a SARS-CoV-2 infection? Are you in a high-risk age group (according to the CDC, 65 and up)? What about the people you live with? It may be helpful (across a number of different decision making scenarios) to be extra cautious, depending on which risk factors you face. Even if you don’t have any additional risk factors, if you’re feeling sick, you should stay home.

Next: consider the infection rate in your area. Is it increasing? Decreasing? Has it plateaued? Some areas of the country have seen large declines in the number of active infections while others remain viral hotspots. Again, you may choose to be more or less inclined to venture out into public depending on the prevalence of the virus in your area. Also: be sure to follow all state and local guidelines on permitted activity; re-opening is happening at different paces across the country. If you decide it’s safer for you and your loved ones to hold off on going out for the time being but still want a break from cooking at home, check out our guidance on how to order takeout safely.

If you decide that it’s safe for you and family to go out to eat, think about the restaurants you’re considering. Although states are re-opening, public health officials still recommend social distancing measures remain in place (i.e. staying six feet away from other people), so consider how feasible this would be in the restaurant of your choice. If you’re uncertain, we suggest calling ahead to ask about the establishment’s policies on staying safe or looking for this information on their website or social media accounts. If you’re curious about the kinds of protective measures you should be looking for, the CDC recommends that restaurants place tables at least six feet apart, avoid self-serve stations, and require that servers wear masks, among other things.

When you arrive at the restaurant, take a look around and get a sense of whether you feel comfortable — crowding and a lack of masks are causes for concern, whereas servers not wearing gloves is not an issue. A good rule of thumb: if the restaurant looks and is operating exactly as it was before the pandemic, it may not be the safest place to dine.

Also be sure to wear a mask. You’ll need to take it off to eat, obviously, but the safest course of action is to keep it on until you begin eating and put it back on before talking. Before you eat, make sure to wash your hands (for the science behind why hand washing is so effective, see our explainer on best practices for avoiding infection).

And if you can, try to get an outdoor table. The current consensus among public health experts, based on numerous studies, is that being outdoors dramatically decreases risk of exposure.

A bit of reassurance to conclude: there is currently no evidence to support the theory that coronavirus transmission is spread specifically through food. While you do want to make sure that restaurants are taking steps to avoid droplets or aerosolized particles from the people preparing and serving your meal landing on your food, you would have wanted that to be the case even before the pandemic. What you really want to focus on now is avoiding close contact with restaurant staff and other diners.

Choice is going to be a crucial theme of this new phase of the pandemic and restaurants are a prime example. Even if you’re permitted by your state to go out, determining whether going out to eat makes sense for you and your family is the first step. Then, taking steps to visit restaurants safely if you do go out becomes key to enjoying a meal in public with some peace of mind.