Human beings are highly social creatures. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be a problem. However, considering the high rate of COVID-19 transmission and how it spreads, being social during the pandemic is dangerous. Restaurants, especially, are considered an ideal breeding ground for COVID-19. A recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that "adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant" than those who came up with a negative result.
The many reasons restaurants are high-risk places for COVID-19 transmission suggest they're best to avoid during the pandemic. However, if eating out at a restaurant is something you still want to do, you should be aware of the risks and take steps to stay safe.
Why You Should Avoid Restaurants During the Pandemic
In their research, the CDC examined 314 outpatients from 11 U.S. health care facilities, who had shown symptoms and later been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Those testing positive for the virus were twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant in the two weeks before becoming ill.
While the report also issued five limitations of the study — including that, due to the small research sample, extrapolation to the entire U.S. population could be difficult — the results led to plenty of headlines.
Janilyn Hutchings, a food scientist and certified food safety professional with StateFoodSafety, said the CDC report didn't suggest anything new. "Prior to this study, we already knew that COVID spreads easily from person to person," she said. "Therefore, being in situations where a lot of people are present can be risky."
She went on to say that what the report did add to the discussion was the difficulty in wearing masks and maintaining social distancing while at restaurants. "Again, this makes sense," she commented. "You can't eat while wearing a mask, and the restaurant experience is, by nature, face to face."
How Does COVID-19 Spread in Restaurants?
In addition to close proximity, other factors can lead to COVID-19 spread between restaurant diners. "They tend to spend longer time together and do need to remove their facial coverings to eat," commented Timothy Brewer, MD, MPH, who is a Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "If someone infected with SAR-CoV-2 is in the restaurant, each of these factors will increase the risk of virus transmission to others," Brewer added.
The study also underlined participants who dined out and came down with COVID-19 were also less likely to report observing other diners adhering to recommendations, such as wearing masks while not eating or social distancing. "In other words, when most restaurant patrons don't follow mask or social distancing guidelines, they're more likely to get COVID-19 at that establishment," Hutchings said.
All of this gets back to the topic of human behavior. Just about everyone knows the protocols involved with limiting coronavirus transmission. But somehow, when it comes to dining out — especially when alcohol is involved — those protocols are often forgotten. Experts talking to the Wall Street Journal said that the more people drink, the more relaxed they become. They also become more indifferent about masks and social distancing. Furthermore, people in bars are more likely to shout and talk, adding more respiratory droplets to the air, and aiding in transmission.
The other issue to consider involves restaurant ventilation. If ventilation is poor and doesn't include outside air circulation, viral particles can build up in the air and spread to other diners. A small study focused on a coronavirus outbreak associated with ventilation in a restaurant in China demonstrated that "droplet transmission was prompted by air-conditioned ventilation." The main factor for infection was determined to be the direction of the airflow.
How to Eat at a Restaurant Safely During the Pandemic
If restaurant takeout and delivery options just won't do, and you're determined to dine in, Hutchings recommends the following methods to stay safe:
- Wear a mask at all times while in the restaurant, unless you're eating or drinking.
- Follow the restaurant's social distancing guidelines.
- Wash your hands before eating your meal.
- If possible, eat at an outside table.
Brewer also suggested that restaurant owners and managers can take steps to halt contagion by maximizing distances between different groups of diners, encouraging outdoor seating, placing barriers between tables and frequently sanitizing commonly touched surfaces. Other suggestions include "using separate, disposable menus, screening employees and diners for symptoms, and not allowing individuals who are sick into the restaurant," he added.
Regardless of precautions taken, the best way to avoid contracting COVID-19 from restaurant dining is to not dine at one in the first place. "If SARS-CoV-2 is spread in the community, getting takeout is likely to be safer than eating in a restaurant," Brewer said.
The Bottom Line
While the recently released CDC report concerning coronavirus spread between restaurant customers didn't really tell experts much more than what they already knew, it did underline the challenges faced by both owners and diners when it comes to on-site dining. However, while it's safer to continue to rely on curbside takeout or home delivery, there are steps you can take to stay safe if you must dine at a restaurant.
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