With new evidence of airborne transmission, it's essential to be cautious.

By Andrea Strong
March 13, 2020
Advertisement
Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

Note: This post has been updated on 7/17/20 with the latest information on this rapidly changing situation.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to ravage our country, with record-breaking numbers of cases recorded and new science indicating that the virus may be airborne, states across the country are rethinking and reversing their phased reopening plans, including those for indoor dining in bars and restaurants. 

Both New York City and New Jersey have postponed plans to reopen for indoor dining, and states like California, which had reopened for indoor dining, have reversed course, ordering restaurants in 19 counties to suspend indoor dining services immediately. 

We spoke to several public health officials to discuss the safety of eating out and best practices for those who do want to eat out, or have food delivered. 

New Information on Viral Spread 

Hundreds of scientists have revised their initial theory that the virus is generally transmitted through large respiratory droplets often emitted through the coughs and sneezes of infected people. Over 200 scientists from 32 different countries published an open letter to the World Health Organization calling for it to update its information on the coronavirus, urging the agency to revisit the research and revise its position on how the disease spreads. In early July, the World Health Organization agreed, releasing a statement that the coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next. 

This new evidence of airborne spread implicates schools, nursing homes, residences, and restaurants which may need to minimize recirculating air and add powerful new filters or ultraviolet lights to kill viral particles floating in tiny droplets indoors. At the very least, masks may be needed indoors, even in socially distant settings. 

With an Airborne Virus, Is Indoor Dining Safe?

Given this new scientific evidence, the dangers of indoor dining are clearly more heightened than was previously understood, explains James Giordano, Ph.D., professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. In fact, Giordano draws a firm line in the sand: “It is not safe to dine indoors,” he says. His answer is not only based on science, but on the politicized atmosphere surrounding public health and masks. 

“Although the restaurants would be able to implement precautions that I think would be adequate to protect the public, we have seen by example that the public is not ready to be fully responsibly and obligatorily compliant,” he said, in reference to the widespread refusal of many individuals to wear masks and of some political leaders’s refusal to enforce public health and safety measures. On July 15th, for example, Georgia governor Brian Kemp (R) signed an executive order explicitly banning cities from enacting mask mandates, even as the state experiences a sharp rise in coronavirus cases and other Republican governors are turning to mandatory mask orders to try to quell the surge. 

Dr. Giordano says the disconnect between political will and scientific reality is reason to stay away from indoor dining. “There is an overwhelming amount of misinformation from the federal government, including the implicit message in the recent invocation that the World Health Organization is not to be trusted,” he said. “If we have an administration that says, ‘We don’t want to be a part of the WHO,’ and then that very organization says this virus may be airborne, you have an entire constituency of folks that will not listen to these warnings, who will not wear masks and adhere to social distancing. You have the politicization of public responsibility and people use this [refusal to wear masks] as an overt broadcast of their political stance.” 

Because public safety protocols and the wearing of masks have become such a political issue, Giordano says dining indoors is not yet safe for the public. “The problem is an irresponsible segment of the population that is not acting in accordance with appropriate policies,” he says. “You have people who will wear a mask and be responsible but what do you do when there is not uniform acceptance? You see fights breaking out all the time. It has become about politics and rights and values when really it just has to do with public health and safety.” 

Restaurants Are Taking Precautions

That said, for the restaurants that do remain open for indoor and outdoor dining, a roster of new safety procedures have been instituted including Plexiglass barriers for hosts, temperature checks for guests, reduced capacity with at least 6 feet between tables, regularly cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces in the restaurant, using disposable (and online) menus, offering advance payment, providing hand sanitizer throughout the dining room, and of course, sending home any employee who does not feel well (hopefully with full sick-day benefits).

Jeff Vironjanapa, the owner of from White Orchids Thai Cuisine and Notch Modern Kitchen & Bar in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has been open for indoor and outdoor patio dining since Pennsylvania entered its Green Phase on June 25th. He only seats parties with reservations so he can contact trace, offers  contactless payment options, and hands out disposable menus. Masked waiters wearing black gloves when they handle clean plates and blue when they handle dirty, and he has even erected plexiglass dividers separating every two seats at his 20-seat bar. “It’s all about making people feel comfortable,” he says. “That’s what we need to do. It’s about service, it’s about food, and ambience, but that sense of comfort and safety is the next level of hospitality.” 

These safety precautions are critical to the dining public. According to a survey from OpenTable, nearly two thirds (72%) of respondents said it was extremely important to see strict cleaning policies in place. A BentoBox survey of 500 diners from across the nation found that a lack of PPE, being seated too close to other guests, the use of reusable items such as menus, and the unnecessary frequency of waitstaff visiting the table during a meal would be red flags that would deter dining out. 

Despite the safety accommodations for indoor dining, Vironjanapa says most of his diners choose to eat outside. “With news cycles talking about a second wave, it’s a no-brainer to eat outside and enjoy the weather and feel safer too,” he said. 

Lydia Chang, an owner and director for business development at Mama Chang in Fairfax, Virginia, and Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, Maryland, has also been open for both indoor and outdoor dining. Her staff is masked, surfaces are sanitized hourly, plastic shields protect the host area, and a pick up station for takeout has been set up outside the restaurant so that people who are only picking up don’t have to be inside. “We have done a lot of training and setting up systems to protect our staff, who are like our family,” said Chang. She has also posted a notice on the door about the required safety protocols that customers must follow, including submitting to a temperature check. 

Chang says most diners have been respectful of these policies, but that some customers have questioned the temp check. “We have had guests come in and say, “Is this really necessary? I could be asymptomatic.’ Our GM kindly says, ‘you know I have a family, and I am trying to protect you and your family too by doing everything we can to say safe.’” So far, she says, people have been “pretty understanding.” 

But Chang says that the bulk of her business has remained to-go. “Even with all the safety protocols, the daily dining-in customer is no more than 10% of our sales. We still do mostly take out. It looks like no one is really jumping at the opportunity to eat out again. People are still more cautious.” 

Noam Galai / Getty Images

Outdoor Dining Is Enjoying a Renaissance

Even with a slew of well communicated safety protocols in place for indoor dining, many diners are not ready to dine in just yet. A survey of 3,500 people nationwide done by Azurite Consulting found that 53% of Americans say they won’t be comfortable going to a sit-down restaurant for at least three months after social distancing ends. Also, 24% won't dine out until a vaccine is available, and 15% will delay eating in a restaurant for three months after a vaccine is accessible. 

This may be why outdoor dining is enjoying such a renaissance. OpenTable has seen a significant rise in outdoor seating nationwide. When comparing the last 30 days (June 13 through July 13, 2020) to the same time period last year, the percentage of outdoor reservations created across the US is up 38%. (However, nationwide overall reservations year over year remain down 45%.)

In New York City, where indoor dining has been postponed, outdoor dining is flourishing with operators turning streetscapes into al fresco boulevards—using picket fencing, terraced gardens, planters, shrubs, twinkling lights, and grass to create an urban oasis in the city. This change in the outdoor dining landscape was made possible thanks to Mayor DeBlasio’s executive order which allow restaurants and bars to occupy not only sidewalks, but also curb lanes, backyards, patios, plazas, and the city miles of OpenStreets

“People love coming to eat outside,” says Key Kim, owner of Kosaka and Maki Kosaka in New York City. “After being so cooped up in their apartments, and doing all their own cooking, and all the dishes, what I see are people just desperate to be outside and to be served. Having that outdoor service is so important, even though it’s hard with rain and storms. It creates this great vibe in the city, a sense of somehow getting back to a normal life, and it makes people feel good.” 

Delivery or Take-Out are Safe, But Clean Those Containers

While outdoor dining is thriving in many neighborhoods, takeout and delivery are still going strong. BentoBox’s survey explored whether diners plan to continue ordering online for pickup and delivery after restaurants reopen. Forty-three percent of surveyed diners said they plan to order a mix of both pickup and delivery, while 27% said they would mostly pick up their orders. 12% plan to have meals mostly delivered and 18% do not plan to order online at all.

"Since COVID-19, a lot of our customers have adapted by adding online ordering directly through their websites, helping them drive revenue while offering a contactless ordering option that keeps both their customers and employees safe,” said Krystle Mobayeni, Founder and CEO of BentoBox. “At the peak of the pandemic, we saw over 100,000 online orders taking place each week and as indoor dining is put on pause across the country, online orders will continue to increase." 

While takeout and delivery is safe, common sense safety precautions should be maintained. “You should feel comfortable ordering food in,” says Dr. Robert Amler, Dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former CDC Chief Medical Officer. Scrubbing hands and wiping down surfaces with a bleach wipe is a very effective way of killing the virus. Given that it can survive up to 3 days on stainless steel and plastic surfaces, Dr. Amler recommends wiping down your delivery containers before eating and obviously washing hands after you have done so and before eating. 

One Last Thing.

We all need nourishment to live. While in its most basic form this means food and calories, in a larger sense it means the nourishment we get from being with our community. For many of us, months of quarantine and social isolation have been challenging, to put it mildly. Restaurants have always provided that sense of comfort and calm, and a night of al fresco dining may go a long way to bringing some sense of normalcy to allay the intense anxiety from living in a world we have never known before. While of course the decision to dine out will be highly personal, it is worth acknowledging the benefits to your soul. And if you find that dining out makes you more stressed rather than less, feel free to take a break for a while.