10 Steps To Safely Eat At A Restaurant During Coronavirus

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How To Safely Go Out To Eat At Restaurants During Coronavirus Pandemic
Health And Wellness

Going out to dinner with friends or family is one of the most social activities we took for granted before lockdown. Now, states are starting to open back up, and slowly, dining options are as well.

Is it safe to go out to eat? While outdoor dining is considered safer than indoor, as far as coronavirus transmission goes, both are possible in various places with some very specific safety precautions.

There’s a lot of personal decisions to be made, though. Just because something is allowed, that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for you and your family, or one you will ultimately feel comfortable with.

Is it safe to go out to eat at a restaurant?

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The decision to go out in public depends on the community you're in and your own personal situation.

“At this point, most communities are still facing the spread of COVID-19. As a result, it’s actually the safest option to continue to stay at home, when possible,” advises One Medical's Natasha Bhuyan, MD.

This is especially true for people who are in vulnerable populations, such as those with chronic health issues. If people do need to go out, they should be sure to wear a mask in public, as this is to protect others. And, of course, never stop washing those hands and sanitizing!

Making the decision to go out to eat during this pandemic should be a decision that's based on your personal health and if you live in a state that was the best or least prepared for the coronavirus pandemic.

"If you decide to go out to eat, you should plan for this outing knowing that this is not risk-free," says Imani Francies, a health expert. "You should arrive prepared with a mask to use when you are not eating, hand sanitizer for 'spot-cleaning' in-between hand-washing, and Sani-wipes to wipe down your table and seat, as an added precaution before you sit down at the table."

Before you go out, plan to eat at a restaurant that has created and laid out strict cleaning and social distancing guidelines for their employees and customers. This is the number one priority in choosing a location.

Adds Francies, "You should be able to easily find these guidelines before visiting the restaurant. If you cannot, then you should reconsider dining at that specific restaurant."

If the restaurant had sub-par hygiene prior to COVID-19, avoid visiting during the pandemic. It's likely their hygiene for the restaurant has improved, but not to the standards needed to sustain during this pandemic. As a result, there's a very real cause to be careful before taking the leap to go out to dinner. 

Here's how to safely go out to eat during coronavirus, all while keeping yourself and others protected.

1. Maintain social distance.

Obviously, staying 6 feet apart from other restaurant-goers is the top priority, aside from wearing a mask. Practice physical distancing, such as setting up tables 6 feet away from each other. Says Dr. Bhuyan, “A barrier method, such as plastic dividers, is an additive option.”

2. Keep your mask on.

Many restaurants allow patrons to remove their masks, but only once they are seated. So, when possible, it’s important for both employees and customers to wear masks with the understanding that, of course, people cannot wear masks when eating or drinking.

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3. Know the health rating of the restaurant.

Always look for the highest rating possible offered from your governing health department.

“No reason for an open restaurant not to have it!” says Mark Steele, founder of Las Vegas-based Restaurant Hospitality Institute. “Most cities have some sort of phone app that can use GPS to locate all current grades in the vicinity. If there is no 'A', don't go.”

4. Call beforehand.

“Before you arrive, call the restaurant, as they may have implemented set seating times or extended their dining hours,” advises Rick Camac, the Dean of Restaurant & Hospitality Management at the Institute of Culinary Education.

Since businesses are taking different steps to ensure that they minimize the risk of spread of COVID-19, consider calling the restaurant ahead of time to ensure they are sanitizing the location properly.

Adds Dr. Bhuyan, “Regular sanitization efforts of hard surfaces with EPA-approved disinfectants is important. I’ve even seen some businesses use UV light radiation for sanitization.” 

5. Bring your cellphone.

This is not the time for a tech hiatus! Why? Because bringing your phone can actually be helpful in social distancing.

Adds Camac, “Some restaurants may be removing physical menus and instead have a digital menu you can see and order from on your phone.” This will cut down on direct contact with menus or other surfaces frequently touched.

6. Avoid cash if you can.

Be sure to bring your credit or debit card when going out to eat. 

Paying in cash means someone has to touch something you have touched, and if you get change, you have to touch cash touched by various others. Using cash is a great way to spread germs.

“Some restaurants are implementing contactless payment, so be prepared with alternate forms of payment just in case,” says Camac.

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7. Bring your own pen.

If you use a credit card and don't pay in a contactless method, you may have to sign the receipt. So, the best advice for this is to bring your own pen.

Says Chef Erik Pettersen, owner of Evo Italian in Tequesta, Florida, “Use your own pen to sign your check, or ask your server for a pen that has not been used by any previous patrons.”

Some restaurants have even ordered custom pens so each patron gets a brand new pen straight out of the box to sign their check. And then, they can bring the pen home with them.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

When making a reservation, ask the host what precautions are being taken.

Recommends Petterson, “Specify if you’d like your server to wear a mask or not. Visit the restaurant’s website and/or social media accounts prior to going to the restaurant.” They have likely posted what precautions they are taking.

Adds Steele, “Subconsciously, sensing a well attended restaurant (clean floors, groomed employees with masks, spotless glasses) should be the baseline.” Trash on the floor, dirty uniforms, and fingerprints on glasses should be a telltale sign of how the entire restaurant is operating. 

9. Avoid communal condiments.

Recently, IHOP made news for removing the jars of syrups from their tables and replacing them with single-use packaging. This isn't the time to use a ketchup or mustard that 20 other people have touched that day!

Instead, ask for single-serve packets for sauces and condiments, such as syrups or hot sauces, and be wary of a place that doesn’t have them readily available.

10. Know what to eat (and what not to eat).

The kind of restaurant we go to, and what we eat when we’re there, matters a great deal.

Fine dining and nicer restaurants have these techniques already in their arsenal. But there's no learning curve needed here as there are for marginally trained staff in casual venues.

Warns Steele, “Front of house service skills have never been more important to stop the spread of COVID in our next generation of service.”

A great choice is any offering that can get your food with the shortest amount of time from window to table. The longer it sits, the longer it stands to contract germs.

And if you're still not comfortable dining out, ordering takeout is always a good option.

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Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer who focuses on health, wellness, and relationships. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter or email her.