The safest way to eat at your favorite restaurant during the pandemic

All hail takeout.
To-go food containers.
Think twice before sitting down, especially without a mask. Pexels

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The clink of wine glasses, the buzz of laughter and constant conversation, a pair of familiar eyes smiling at you across the table, skimming through menus—dining out has been sorely missed.

After several months of only consuming takeout and experimenting in the kitchen, many of us are hustling to catch a glimpse or normalcy and get back into our favorite cafes, diners, and restaurants. But how can we chow down safely, without putting ourselves, our peers, and restaurant staff at risk?

Right when lockdowns spread across the country in March, restaurants immediately stood out as a public health hazard. When it comes down to it, restaurants are enclosed spaces, with people chewing, drinking, shouting, laughing, and bumping elbows at close proximity, for long periods of time. Basically, that’s the recipe for an epidemiological disaster, especially when it comes to diseases like COVID-19. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease expert at the European CDC, points out that eating and drinking require a mask-free moment. Without that layer of protection, you become extremely vulnerable, and so do the people breathing in your un-masked breath. “You become very dependent on social distancing and air ventilation in the restaurant,” says Popescu.

In the last two weeks alone, thirty-nine US states have experienced an increase in new COVID-19 cases. Yet, seventeen states, including major hot spots like Texas AND Florida, have completely reopened their restaurants. Ten others, like New York and New Jersey, are in the process of doing so. Whether you’re in a state that’s heating up or cooling down, there are multiple options with different levels of risk on how to get your favorite meal from the chef to your plate.

Riskiest: dining inside a restaurant

“The more space, the better,” says Popescu. That’s why, whenever possible, avoid dining inside a restaurant. Studies show that COVID-19 depends on face-to-face transmission through air droplets. Throw in an enclosed space with mask-less people eating and chatting, and you’ve got a high-risk cesspool of transmission.

But if you’re absolutely desperate to go out, before you even step outside your house, assess yourself for any symptoms. Are you feeling sick, or have you engaged in any risky behavior, like socializing or meeting up with someone COVID-19 positive, in the last few days? “If my husband tested positive today, I would not go to a restaurant,” says Popescu. If you feel any symptoms at all, or somebody you’re close to isn’t feeling great, stay home to protect yourself and others.

Say you’ve been avoiding all risk, and nobody you know is sick. When you get to the restaurant, take a long, detailed look at its interior before you commit to dining there. Some big red flags are tables way closer than six feet apart from each other, closed doors and windows, and stuffy air. “If you see a restaurant that isn’t able to keep windows and doors open and just uses an oscillating fan, that’s not a good environment,” says Popescu. Pick a restaurant that’s not filled to the brim with people, and make sure that all patrons and staff are properly masked before you sit down at a table.

Once you’re inside, keep your mask on at all times—unless you’re sipping a drink or eating. “In a restaurant, you should wear a mask when you get there and order, and take it off when you eat or take a few sips of your drink,” says Popescu. Always keep your mask on while you’re interacting with any restaurant staff, and try to minimize your interactions with your hostess and waiter. After all, they are going through so much exposure during a single work shift just so you can order your favorite pasta and wine combo. The least you can do is try your best to keep them safe.

What about the difference between fast-casual spots, like Chipotle, or fancier, sit-down restaurants? It doesn’t really matter how swanky your meal is, says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at John Hopkins Center for Health Security. It’s all about the time you spend inside, he adds, and if you’re carefully social distancing. So no matter how long you’d spend in your favorite places before COVID-19, now’s the time to distance from others and minimize the amount of time you’re lingering in a restaurant.

Yet, no matter how many precautions you take inside a restaurant, it’s always safer to dine outside.

Risky: outdoor seating

“In general, the risk is lower when you sit outdoors versus indoors,” says Adalja. “It’s easier to social distance, and there’s likely a breeze that will allow for greater air ventilation.” While some studies have shown that COVID-19 can travel up to 26 feet in your coughs and sneezes, epidemiologists still debate over whether the virus is still dangerous when in aerosol form. “There’s a lot of controversy, and the debate’s still going on in the epidemiology field about how dangerous that aerosolization is,” Adalja notes.

So even if you’re sitting outside, sit six feet away from others and keep your mask on whenever you’re not eating or drinking. If you’re set up on the sidewalk, there’s a chance that people will jog or walk right past you, so keep your mask on to protect you and the people out strolling in their neighborhood.

When choosing who to dine out with, look to your immediate household, advises Popescu. “We’re seeing such unabated community transmission that it’s hard to make the case for going out to get a meal or drink with friends,” says Popescu. Tables are designed to be far from each other, but everyone at your table will be sitting close enough together to chit chat and potentially pass along the virus, she says. If you are itching to see a pal from outside your coronavirus bubble, it’s time to break out the picnic basket and go sit somewhere in the park or at the beach where you can safely keep your six feet of distance.

We’re nearing the end of July, though, and temperatures are soaring. If the thought of sitting outside in the scorching heat is unbearable, look toward the safest option: takeout.

Not-So-Risky: takeout

Takeout falls much, much lower on the risk index than taking a seat anywhere at a restaurant. Just remember to wear a mask and social distance while picking your meal up, and to minimize the amount of time you spend waiting inside the restaurant. “Don’t enter the restaurant before your food is ready, unless you can sit outside or wait in your car,” says Popescu. “By choosing takeout, you’re decreasing the amount of time you’re in the restaurant. You’re minimizing exposure.”

When it comes to handling the takeout packaging, Adalja isn’t too worried. “Surface contamination is a secondary transmission type, compared to face-to-face transmission,” says Adalja. “I have no hesitation in getting takeout myself.” According to UC Davis virologist Erin DiCaprio, in an interview with Sactown, COVID-19 isn’t known to spread through food, so just because someone else is preparing it doesn’t necessarily make the food riskier to consume.

What Popescu always remembers is this golden rule—hand hygiene. “I open them, put the food on a plate, toss the container, and wash my hands before I eat,” she says and argues that sanitizing the takeout containers isn’t a big concern. Her husband, however, prefers to sanitize the entire container before handling it with his bare hands. As long as you make sure your hands are clean before you eat, you can take a deep breath, relax, and dig in.

With takeout, you can quench your appetite for supporting the local economy, eating delicious food, and fighting to protect yourself and others from getting sick all in one spoonful.