Although I’ve ordered plenty of takeout over the last few months (support your local restaurants, y’all!), I haven’t eaten in a restaurant since February. I know I’m not alone. But recently, there’s been a huge surge in interest about eating out, at least in the cities starting to open up restaurants for outdoor dining, or limited indoor dining.
(And hopefully not closing them back up again, oof.)
We’ve shared our tips for ordering takeout safely, but right now we know a lot of families who are super burnt out on eating in 21 meals a week are asking questions like, is it safe to eat in restaurant yet? Is it safe to eat outside in-person at a restaurant? And what about the kids?
So I did a little research to help you make a good decision.
Related: How to safely order takeout during the pandemic
Infographic: Malaka Gharib for NPR
The safety of restaurants during Covid-19: Let’s start by looking at the data
-First, know that Covid is not transmitted through food. You can’t ingest the virus and become sick — it’s a respiratory disease. So food itself is not a big concern. That said, here are some considerations for where you eat that food.
-CNBC has a really interesting chart that graphs restaurant spending and coronavirus spread, which shows that in-person restaurant spending was “particularly predictive” of increasing COVID-19 rates. In other words, there’s a correlation between people eating in restaurants, and higher rates of infection; and conversely, a correlation between supermarket spending and lower rates of infection. (It’s possible of course that people who were going to indoor restaurants were also doing other things now considered risky.)
-The CDC has an informative study about the way air conditioning can spread coronavirus in restaurants, based on a study of a cluster outbreak in China. You’ve probably seen this by now — it’s become the gold standard rationale for air filtration and HVAC systems as we proceed to open indoor spaces. So, unless a restaurant has a high-tech new system of air circulation, maybe eating outside is the safer option.
-If you’re a visual learner, this viral video that came out of Japan shows just how easily viruses (in general) can spread in restaurant settings.
For someone like me who tends toward the “cautious, no-playdates, wear a mask, and limit outings” side of things, all this data adds up to me. It makes dining indoors, especially right now in hotspot communities, seem overwhelming and not worth the risk — especially when I can still order takeout.
What to think through before you eat out
Photo: Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash
I still want to support those small, local businesses that are struggling so much right now and working so hard to make dining affordable for us, and experts suggest that there are safe ways to do that.
– Food & Wine has a great article about how to re-open restaurants safely, which I think patrons should read as well restaurant owners. If a restaurant is following these tips, you can feel more comfortable eating there.
-In a similar vein, in this recent article from NPR, epidemiology professor Dr. Mark Kortepeter shares four questions to ask to determine whether your favorite restaurant is operating safely. The wonderful infographic by Makala Gharib for NPR above is a big help (Incidentally, she also illustrated the wonderful Coronavirus comic for kids that we shared to help explain this to them.)
-Use your gut, too. Look for signs that the restaurant is taking this seriously — is there hand sanitizer at the entrance? Are the servers dangling masks over their ears? Are there posted signs clearly stating local laws or restaurant rules?
-Above all, you must factor in where you live, and the quality of the scientific guidance you’re getting from your local, city, and state officials. Has your area been reopening slowly and steadily like cities in the northeast and keeping infection rates down? Or have they rushed to reopen businesses and then had to backtrack?
-And of course, it all comes down to your own comfort. There’s no need to rush out and do anything before you’re really ready.
Bottom line: If you’re ready to eat out. choose outdoor or semi-outdoor dining options, with tables spaced six feet apart or with dividers between them, and servers wearing masks. Vanderbilt professor and infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner explains how eating outdoors with these precautions the safest option in this CNN interview. In the same article, UMass associate biology professor Erin Bromage offers a helpful analogy, comparing the virus to the effects of sitting near a smoker inside a restaurant versus outside. That made a lot of sense to me, and is pretty easy to grasp.
What about eating out with kids?
Photo David Emrich via Unsplash
From a data standpoint, I have found virtually nothing about how to safely dine out with kids during Covid — other than the CDC’s recommendation that kids older than 2 should wear face masks. Harvard Health does have an article on how to go out in public safely with young kids, however nearly all of their tips feel close to impossible to enforce with young kids at a restaurant.
That said, if you have teens or mature tweens who have really missed a particular restaurant — or more likely, the essential social interaction of being out, and the chance for random (if distant) run-ins with neighborhood friends they miss — you can choose to don your face masks (as always!) and follow the protocol above.
That means eating outside, in safe neighborhoods, six feet apart, wearing masks when not eating, washing hands before and after. It can be a nice break from cooking at home, help change up the monotony in the week, and truly give them (and you) a mental health break that a meal out can provide these days.
However if you have toddler or younger kids, I’d think seriously about the choice.
I know that my youngest kids would lick the table or chew on the high chair. (You may have better luck with yours!) And since we don’t eat out a lot as a family, they’re not used to restaurant manners and norms, which are extra important these days.
I’m also not sure they could handle long waits outside right now if that’s a factor; if so, you may be more likely to face a meltdown and kind of defeat the purpose of a nice night out with the family.
Perhaps a better bet for parents of younger kids would be to call in your quaranteam caregiver, if you’re fortunate enough to have a trusted sitter, neighbor, grandparent, or older child to watch the little ones, and have a date night out, just the adults.
Related: How to be a happier parent in a pandemic. Is it even possible?
Here’s one last thought…
As much as we all miss going to restaurants — and these last few months have felt looooooong without our usual entertainment and plans — I think we need to factor in the health and safety of restaurant workers and other diners in our decision.
If your kids are unwilling or unable to follow social distancing and mask guidelines, stay in their seats, and behave extra responsibly, it’s probably best to stick to takeout for the time being.
Note: The choice to go out to a restaurant is obviously not one everyone can make.. If you’re struggling economically right now and food security is an issue for you, know that many restaurants around the country are providing free kids meals right now for take-out. Picking food up to take home to your kids or eat outside somewhere safely, like a park or beach, is an option to consider if you need the help.
Top photo: Shawn Ang on Unsplash