The answer depends on a few things, including how you prepare for your future meals out.

By Chris Malloy
May 18, 2020
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Though they've been closed for dine-in service since March due to the enduring coronavirus pandemic, some restaurants are starting to open their dining rooms again. This varies by state. Several have allowed restaurants to reopen for dine-in; others will this month, next, or in the near future.

The pandemic is still ongoing, though. Are restaurants safe to eat in? Some people say yes. Others say no. The issue tends to be polarizing.

“You can’t think about this in terms of being safe or not being safe,” says Shauna C. Zorich, MD, MPH, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at University of Buffalo. “You need to think about this in terms of a spectrum of risk.”

Eating out this spring will carry some risk—the question is how much. This applies to any activity, not strictly restaurants. “When individuals are engaging in activities with other people, they’re going to be engaging in risks,” Dr. Zorich says.

She says that there are ways you can diminish the risk that eating in restaurants necessarily brings. You can keep your distance from other diners, eat out only with family you’ve been living with, wash your hands before and after your meal, carry hand sanitizer, and bring your own pen to sign the check, Dr. Zorich says. You can also eat only at restaurants that are taking precautions, such as reducing dining room capacity and spacing out tables.

Depending on your location, eating out can carry more or less risk. “There are certain places where it could be safe to open a restaurant as long as there are precautions being put into place,” Dr. Zorich says. “If you’re in a community where you don’t have a lot of coronavirus circulating… that would be a safer place to open a restaurant. You do not want to be opening restaurants in places where you’re still seeing a lot of cases.”

Eating at a restaurant in a rural community with small virus numbers carries less risk. Eating at a restaurant in a city with an outbreak carries significantly more.

This danger, Dr. Zorich emphasizes, is not just to yourself. It is also to other diners. “When you go into a restaurant and take that risk, you could also be putting someone else at risk as well. You have to recognize that it’s not just about you—it’s about everyone around you.”

This includes unsafe circumstances for the restaurant staff. “It would be really hard to not come within six feet of your waiter,” Dr. Zorich says. “They have to put your food down on your table. That’s where transmission could occur.”

But in restaurants, there are many other points of possible virus transmission to consider as well. The coronavirus can live for a long time on objects. Dr. Zorich gives a few restaurant examples to watch, such as the sleeve your check arrives in and the bathroom sink.

Given these and other points of transmission, Dr. Zorich says that immunocompromised populations of people shouldn’t be eating out at all during this time (and for the indefinite future). For these people, the risk is simply too high—the risk to themselves and others. This group includes the elderly, people with underlying medical conditions, people with symptoms of the virus, and people who have been in recent contact with someone who has the virus. (This last group of people, she says, should be going into quarantine.)

For those outside of this group, the choice might not be easy. Just as it has been a difficult choice for governments to allow reopening at this stage in the first place with a pandemic still ongoing. “It’s so difficult because you have this balance between protecting public health and getting the economy going again,” Dr. Zorich says.

In the end, there’s one surefire way to minimize risk while supporting restaurants. This spring, Dr. Zorich believes the safest way to patronize restaurants is by ordering takeout. Find our guide for doing so safely here.