Like schools, workplaces, and other venues where there may be large gatherings of people, restaurants have been hugely impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic that continues to unfold across the U.S. and around the world. Plummeting foot traffic — driven by concern and preventative measures over the spread of COVID-19 — has resulted in a sharp decline in sales, with many local restaurants, bars, bakeries, and other eateries forced to close or lay off staff as a result.
But not everyone has to give up dining out right now. While there will always be inherent risk in venturing out of a self-quarantine, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and others when eating at a restaurant (though none of them are fail-safe). There is currently no evidence of food being associated with COVID-19 transmission, according to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); the risks are largely associated with interacting with other people. So, should you find yourself in a restaurant, it’s best to follow common-sense precautions, as advised by public health authorities, to avoid further spread of the virus. From medical and public health experts, here are best practices on how to safely dine out during the coronavirus outbreak:
Assess your own personal risk
At this time, “there is no guidance from the CDC that indicates the general population should avoid eating out,” but individuals should still follow general guidance on risk assessment before deciding whether or not to go to a restaurant, says Amy R. Sapkota, a professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
“First, if you are sick or starting to feel respiratory symptoms like coughing or sneezing, you should avoid dining out,” says Michael Knight, an assistant professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “You do not want to transmit a possible infection to other people, and you will be more susceptible to possible infections as your immune system is already busy fighting your current illness.”
Individuals who are in a high-risk group — older adults over 60 years of age, as well as people who have underlying medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease — should also refrain from dining out in crowded restaurants, experts say, as the CDC recommends avoiding crowds and coming into close contact with others.
Avoid crowded restaurants and peak hours
Younger, healthier Individuals who are at low risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19 can reduce their exposure to the virus while dining out by going to restaurants that have fewer people and a greater distance separating diners (the CDC’s recommendation for “social distancing,” or keeping yourself away from mass gatherings and apart from other people, is a distance of six feet). This may mean dropping in at odd hours, or choosing establishments with lower foot traffic. “During peak times in a busy restaurant, you are often in much closer proximity to your fellow diners,” says Knight. “Within six feet, you are more likely to come in contact with respiratory droplets released from someone’s nose or mouth, that may carry the virus.”
Maintaining social distancing in restaurants is critical not just for your own sake, but for others, as well. “You are better able to slow the spread [of COVID-19] by limiting your eating out to restaurants where you will not be in close proximity to others, i.e., not crowded, not seated directly next to someone, limited dining group size,” says Knight. The more people who take actions like this, the more we can do to “flatten the curve,” so to speak, by slowing down the speed of an outbreak and preventing a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases that could overwhelm health care systems.
However, Knight notes, “if you avoid eating out at restaurants, but still go to a crowded movie theater, sports game, or retail store, you aren’t making much of an impact. Keep in mind that it’s the people, not the food, that is the issue.”
Steer clear of self-serve buffets
In the event of an outbreak, it’s best to stay away from lavish all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffets, the Whole Foods hot bar, and other kinds of self-serve buffets. “It’s really best at this point if there are servers at the self-serve buffets,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer, head of the Los Angeles county Department of Public Health, recommended at a March 11 press conference. According to Sapkota, the serving utensils at self-serve buffets could have been handled by multiple people, and coronaviruses can survive on those surfaces for possibly hours or even days, some scientists have found.
Busy buffets with lines of diners queuing up to get their food could also mean close proximity to each other, another potential risk. Similarly, crowded food halls and food festivals should be avoided, says Knight.
Wash your hands and maintain good hygiene practices
Hand washing is exactly as essential as every health organization, epidemiologist, and viral tweet says it is. Sapkota stresses that thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds — or, if soap and water aren’t available, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer — is the most important transmission prevention method. She recommends washing your hands immediately before you eat, after you’ve used the restroom, and after touching surfaces that could potentially be contaminated. In Sapkota’s words: “If you’re following these precautions, regardless of what type of specific restaurant setting you’re encountering, you are providing yourself with protection.”
It’s vital to practice other forms of good hygiene, as well. Coronaviruses, as well as other respiratory viruses like the flu, only lead to infection when they enter the body through the mouth, nose, and eyes, so experts recommend following the broadly disseminated recommendation to stop touching your face.
On another hygiene note, individuals should be coughing or sneezing into a tissue to be discarded (or if that’s not available, into a bent elbow), as those droplets sprayed from the mouth could spread the virus to other people. As an added precaution, wash your hands with soap immediately afterward, to avoid transferring stray droplets from your hands to other surfaces.
Say no to sharing
Sharing food, the joy of tapas lovers and family-style aficionados everywhere, should be tabled for the time being. “In general, it’s wise not to share drinks or utensils. Particularly in this current situation, I think it would be wise not to share food,” Sapkota advises, although she concedes that a group could safely use utensils or clean hands to divvy up a shared course onto separate plates if family style is the only option.
Pay and cleanse
The general public, some restaurants, and even banking systems like the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Korea have expressed concerns about or taken precautions against handling cash, because paper bills and coins have the potential to carry bacteria and viruses.
There have been conflicting reports on the appropriate level of concern, as some experts have called for a “better safe than sorry” approach, and others have called fears overblown. In a widely circulated Telegraph article from March 2, the headline suggested that the World Health Organization (WHO) believed dirty cash could be spreading COVID-19. The WHO later pushed back on that report, claiming to have been misrepresented and telling MarketWatch: “WHO did NOT say banknotes would transmit COVID-19, nor have we issued any warnings or statements about this.” WHO’s main message, according to the spokesperson, was to wash your hands after handling money — a “good hygiene practice” more generally, even outside of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Knight and Sapkota agree that keeping your hands clean is the most important protection when it comes to payment. “If you stick to card or electronic payment, but still fail to wash your hands before touching your face, after pressing buttons on the payment terminal, or holding a doorknob, you are still susceptible to potential infection,” Knight points out. “So if you are [at] a cash-only establishment, just be sure to wash your hands after handling money, prior to consuming your meal.”
When in doubt, stay home
Even if you are a low-risk individual, those in particularly high-risk areas or situations where they can’t guarantee a distance of six feet from others are better off staying home. “Refraining from dining out in high-risk areas of the country would be advisable. In fact, many restaurants in high-risk areas are already temporarily closing,” says Sapkota.
Takeout or food delivery are good alternatives to going out to eat. The greatest benefit of these options, according to Knight, is avoiding the groups of people present in a restaurant. Some delivery apps, like Instacart and Postmates, have also taken their cues from delivery during China’s outbreak and introduced no-contact delivery — which involves dropping off food at a specified location, or leaving the meal outside the customer’s door — in the U.S., which reduces the risk of person-to-person transmission even further.
Just be sure to still wash your hands thoroughly after handling all the packaging materials (paper or plastic bag, receipt, menus, etc.) prior to eating, Knight notes.
Stay up to date with the latest recommendations
One of the most important things an individual can do before deciding whether to self quarantine is to stay current with the latest messaging coming from the CDC, as well as local and state health departments. “Because the situation is changing so rapidly, we may have different recommendations or guidelines coming out of these agencies over the next days or weeks,” says Sapkota.
So while you can take this guide as a baseline of reasonable precautions should you end up going out to eat, remember to always look for the most up-to-date recommendations applicable to your specific location. And now that you’re done reading this, why not go wash your hands for good measure?