FYI, the CDC and doctors agree that wearing a mask is a nonnegotiable.

By Betty Gold
June 17, 2020

As restaurants that have been shuttered since March due to the enduring coronavirus pandemic begin to reopen or outline plans to do so, those planning to dine out this summer are (rightfully) wondering what safety precautions to take when the time comes. Should I wear a mask to a restaurant, even if I’m dining outdoors? Avoid using cash and credit cards for payment? Continue to maintain a safe distance from hosts and servers?  

Of course, the mere question of whether eating in restaurants is a smart idea is highly controversial. (Read what an epidemiology expert recommends before making that decision here.) But every week, we see new headlines about more states—and their accompanying restaurants, salons, shops, doctor’s offices, and so on—reopening for business.

First and foremost, those who are going to venture back to public venues should follow every safety guideline put into place by health officials as their state chooses to lift or loosen social distancing recommendations. Here, we’ve outlined some of the key precautions to follow according to medical experts. If you’re a restaurant or bar owner considering reopening, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s decision tree tool prior to welcoming back customers.

Evaluating Risk

Before you enter any dining establishment, experts advise you know what you’re getting into. The longer and more intimate your interactions are, the higher your risk of COVID-19 spread. Here are the four levels of risk by restaurant type, as outlined by the CDC:

Lowest Risk: Food service limited to drive-through, delivery, takeout, and curbside pick up.

More Risk: Drive-through, delivery, takeout, and curbside pick up emphasized. On-site dining limited to outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least six feet apart.

Even More Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least six feet apart.

Highest Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least six feet apart.

Face Masks Are Nonnegotiable

You should always wear your mask for indoor dining, says Robert Segal, MD, President of Dining outdoors is significantly safer, but it’s still a good idea to have your mask on. “Even if the tables are set appropriately for physical distancing and you’re eating outside, I would still recommended to wear masks as often as possible,” he says. “I understand everyone’s need to go back to normal life, but considering how this second wave is increasing transmission after cities across the country are reopening, I would always err on the side of caution. It’s simply better to be safe than sorry.”

You’re smart to wonder what to do when your food arrives. Dr. Segal recommends folding your mask properly in a well-ventilated pouch in your pocket until your meal is finished. Make sure not to store it anywhere that could mean cross-contamination, and to avoid touching your face as much as you can when putting it on and taking it off. “I would also advise you to quickly put on your mask when your waiter comes to your table," Dr. Segal adds.

Also note that the CDC strongly recommends that all restaurant workers wear cloth face coverings at all times, particularly in times that physical distancing is difficult.

Other Restaurant Safety Smarts

“Physical distancing and hand washing are the best preventative measure for viral transmission and should be at the top of everyone's priority when deciding to go outside for anything, including restaurants,” says Dr. Segal. Masks, as mentioned, are also recommended (especially if you'll be gathering in a small group or going indoors).

Next, you should sanitize your credit cards and debit cards before and after each outing, and to try to avoid having to use cash if possible. “If you are using cash, be mindful to wash your hands or sanitize your hands after handling,” Dr. Segal says.

Finally, menus are problematic. “It should be cautioned that menus are one of the dirtiest items in a restaurant. I highly advise to ALWAYS wash your hands after touching any menu when visiting a restaurant,” Dr. Segal says.

“It’s not a crime to be cautious; these are habits that we all need to be mindfully aware of," he says. "We can still return to some degree of normalcy, but we all need to be as smart as we can to avoid transmission.”

Speaking of which, takeout is always an option. Find our guide for doing it safely here.