If you choose to eat out (or do takeout or delivery) from restaurants, be smart about it.

By Andrea Strong
March 13, 2020
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Note: This post has been updated on 3/16/20 with the latest information on this rapidly changing situation.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic unfolds across the country, pleas for social distancing and widespread anxiety about transmission of infection have begun to take a toll on restaurants, leaving empty seats in even the most popular spots as people stock their kitchens and shop for food to cook at home. A growing number of state and local authorities across the countries have ordered restaurants and bars to shut down in an attempt to slow down the spread of coronavirus. Obviously, the choice of whether to dine out is very personal, and depends on your level of risk aversion, any underlying health condition, your age, and any number of other factors. 

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I spoke to Dr. Robert Amler, Dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former CDC Chief Medical Officer who coordinated medical monitoring for anthrax response teams, to discuss best practices for those who do want to eat out, or have food delivered. 

New Information on How Long the Virus Lives on Surfaces

To review, the novel coronavirus is transferred to others through droplets that come out of the nose and mouth of someone who is infected, usually through coughing or sneezing. That droplet can infect you if it lands on your hands and then you touch your hands to your eyes, mouth, or nose; if it is sprayed directly in your eyes, mouth, or nose; if it lands on a surface you touch, and you then touch eyes hands or mouth; or if it lands on food which you then eat. 

Research published online on Wednesday does add some new information to the picture. This research, which is awaiting peer review from scientists at Princeton University, the University of California-Los Angeles and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicated that the COVID-19 virus could remain viable in the air "up to 3 hours post aerosolization," while remaining alive on plastic and other surfaces for up to three days and on copper for one day. 

Dr. Amler says this information is helpful in understanding how the virus spreads. “We have a lot of stainless steel and plastic surfaces so if someone sneezes on a surface and walks away, it can be there a couple days later, so that is important to understand.” 

But Dr. Amler does caution that survivability and infectability are not always the same thing. “The virus may be able to survive for 3 hours, but it may also be on its last legs and not in a position to reproduce, colonize, and set up an infection in another body.” In any case, if you're looking to eat out at a restaurant during this fraught time, it's best to keep a few things in mind.

Restaurants Are Taking Precautions—If They Remain Open, That Is

The current recommendation from the CDC is to eliminate any gathering of over 50 people—and that includes restaurants. In some areas where restaurants remain open, customers are only permitted to take their food to-go or have it delivered to minimize personal contact. 

For the restaurants that do remain open, new safety procedures instituted across include: Reducing the occupancy of the restaurant (aka removing tables) to improve social distancing; regularly cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces in the restaurant; using one time menus; providing hand sanitizer throughout the dining room; using gloves when setting the table; removing all shared and common elements from the restaurant including caddies, silverware, barbecue sauce and paper towels; requiring all team members preparing, serving and clearing food or tables to wear gloves at all times; requiring all employees to wash their hands immediately following clearing any tables; and of course, sending any employee home who does not feel well (hopefully with full sick-day benefits).

“The bottom line is that the public is being asked to lean forward and be prepared for what the next problem might be,” says Dr. Amler. “You are asked to anticipate the worst case scenario and prepare accordingly. But what we also have found is that when people are better prepared and take these steps needed, they feel better and less uncertain and don’t feel as unsettled.” 

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When Eating Out, Take Your Own Precautions, Too

“This is not a time where you must stay away from restaurants,” says Dr. Amler. “We can go out and be safe with a certain amount of preparedness.” Is anything 100% safe? No. But be prepared and of course use your judgement; stay home if you are sick or if you have any underlying conditions that may make infection more severe, or if you live with or care for someone who is vulnerable.

Obviously, Amler recommends washing your hands before and after you eat. He also suggests that if you are someone who rubs table tops and touches your face, to bring hand sanitizer and use that during the meal to keep yourself safe. He stresses that hands are the most important vehicle for germs and to focus on cleaning your hands and avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth, more than anything else. Likewise, if you're picking up coffee to go, use a napkin to pick up the cream dispenser, and sanitize your hands

While many restaurants have been increasing sanitation of tables, if you feel more comfortable he also says you can bring in some sort of bleach wipe along with you and wipe down the table and chairs before you sit down. “Knowing your restaurant and their level of cleanliness will dictate how you behave in that setting,” he says.

Silverware is probably safe, but many restaurants are moving to disposable flatware and if you feel like it, bring your own from home or bring your own disposable silverware. It’s also probably wise to keep sharing plates to a minimum. Don’t eat off of common serving pieces or use your silverware to take food from common bowls or plates, and keep your hands out of food that other people might be eating, even if it's technically finger food (and definitely no double-dipping!).

Look for Restaurants That Take Safety Seriously

Restaurants are bound by law to follow basic food safety precautions; washing hands and keeping sick people home are among these requirements and are especially important now. It’s critical that those who prepare your feed are healthy, whether you are home or out to dinner. No one having a cold, cough, or gastrointestinal issues should be preparing food. Obviously your level of trust in your restaurant will determine whether you feel comfortable having a meal prepared there. 

But Dr. Amler says it’s not really about science, but more about what is reasonable and common sense. “If you decide to go to a restaurant, you may want to choose a restaurant that is making every effort to protect customers and servers. That may be a more desirable place to be right now.” 

Dr. Amler is especially impressed with restaurants that have taken tables out of the room to increase social distance.  “That added distance is really reassuring because it demonstrates what they are willing to do to make customers feel better,” he says. “How much will that help, and will it save a life, no one can say for sure, but [they're] all steps in the right direction.” 

Feel Free to Order Delivery or Take-Out, But Clean Those Containers

“You should feel comfortable ordering food in,”  says Dr. Amler. As we have discussed before, scrubbing of 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, restaurants have always provided that sense of comfort and calm, and a night out 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 awhile.