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We Asked Experts If It’s Safe To Eat At Restaurants, And Here’s Their Advice

We Asked Experts If It’s Safe To Eat At Restaurants, And Here’s Their Advice

States are slowly reopening across the country and many of us are sick of cooking at home. It all raises the question: as restaurants begin serving, is it safe to dine out during the pandemic?


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So I talked to two infectious disease experts about how we can best minimize our risks of contracting the virus while dining out during the pandemic.


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I talked to Manisha Juthani, MD, associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine and infectious disease specialist at Yale Medicine and Jade Flinn, a nurse educator for the biocontainment unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Here’s some of the advice they had about dining out during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you contract the virus through food? Let’s say someone working in a restaurant kitchen is infected with COVID-19. Can you then contract the virus by eating food that person has handled?


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Well…it’s complicated. “The most common way that the virus is transmitted is face-to-face with an infected person for more than 10 minutes,” explained Dr. Juthani. If the person preparing your food is wearing a mask, it is very unlikely you could catch the virus through that person contaminating your food. In addition, eating contaminated food prepared by a person who is infected is probably not a primary way that COVID-19 spreads. But of course, there is always risk. Dr. Juthani suggested that if you are extremely anxious about the possibility of catching the virus, then it’s best to avoid all potential exposures, including eating out.

COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through mucus droplets, but according to Flynn, “the mucus membranes we are more worried about in terms of transmission are in your eyes and nose, just like how the flu would transmit.” Our mouths contain active enzymes and bacteria that combat and help break down food as well as viruses, she explains, which makes this virus unlikely to be transmitted through contaminated food.

Is dining outside safer than dining indoors, even at a decreased restaurant capacity?


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According to both Dr. Juthani and Flynn, the answer is yes. That has to do with air circulation and ventilation. Few cases have occurred through outdoor transmission,” said Juthani. Indoors, air continues to circulate, but outside most potential infected droplets seem to disappear, Flynn added.

When you’re eating indoors air is being recirculated, and droplets can travel with an air current. On the contrary, in an outdoor setting you have sunlight which is helpful with disinfection and you have natural ventilation so droplets are blowing away rather than recirculating in a closed space,” she said.

So how can you minimize your risk of contracting COVID-19 while eating out?


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Both Dr. Juthani and Flynn agreed that eating outdoors, avoiding touching your face, wearing a mask when you’re not eating, and washing your hands before eating are your best chance of minimizing risk.

“Wear a mask whenever you can,” said Flynn. While you’re waiting for a table or chatting when you aren’t eating, wearing a mask helps contain droplets so you don’t contract the virus or spread it. Wash your hands as frequently as you can and carry hand sanitizer so you can disinfect your hands after touching any objects or surfaces, she added.

How safe is group dining? Is it riskier to go to dinner with a party of six than with just one other person?

Is it safe to use reusable tableware like utensils, dishes, and glasses?


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More or less, yes, says Juthani. “To get the virus from objects, the infected person would need to contaminate the object, then you would have to touch it and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth,” she explains. So avoid touching your face and wash your hands often, and you’ll minimize that risk.

If a restaurant’s reusable plates, glasses, and silverware are well-maintained and you trust that eatery has a thorough cleaning process, you should feel OK using them, said Flynn. That being said, some restaurants are erring on the side of caution and using disposable tableware, so if you’re really concerned you can always request it.

OK, and what about using a restaurant’s restroom?


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As long as you wash your hands after using the restroom and before eating, Juthani explains, you should be safe.

According to Flynn, it all goes back to the same hygienic principals. What is the level of ventilation in the bathroom? What surfaces are you touching? How many other people are in the restroom at the same time? If you’re using a public restroom, wear your mask, wash your hands, and if you have to open a door, do so with a paper towel.

Oh, and to dispel any rumors, you cannot contract the virus by sitting on the same toilet seat as someone infected with COVID.

Is there a greater risk in eating out than ordering takeout or going to the grocery store?


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Simply put, yes, according to Flynn. If you’re simply grabbing takeout, you’re getting your food and returning back home to a controlled space. On the other hand, if you’re at a restaurant, there are more people coming and going. You could be exposed to people who are asymptomatic or not following universal masking. It all goes back to the level of exposure and how long you’re in a certain environment, which puts you at a greater risk of contracting the virus, Flynn added.

How can people safely decide whether or not it’s a smart idea to return to restaurants?


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Use your best judgment. Consider the restaurant: are the tables spaced apart? Are servers correctly wearing masks when they approach your table? Are those preparing food in the kitchen wearing masks? Also, take a look at your local community. “If there is a lot of virus circulating, maybe wait to go to a restaurant,” suggests Dr. Juthani. If the level of cases is decreasing where you live, the risk of going out to eat is much lower.

If you’re eating indoors, make sure the restaurant has good ventilation with open windows or doors, suggests Flynn. If you’re eating outside, ensure that there is proper social distancing — that tables are spread apart or blocked off — and that the restaurant is managing the environment with routine cleaning.

Finally, consider your risk tolerance. For the time being, eating out at a restaurant is not risk-free. “For the time being without a vaccine and without effective therapies to combat COVID-19, there is always going to be a risk. But these risks can be mitigated by these different pillars of infection control we have in place,” explained Flynn.

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