COVID-19 is scary stuff, and we’d never downplay the absolute importance of following the safety recommendations from the CDC, the WHO, and medical pros across the country. But after months of isolation, it’s understandable if you want to reemerge and socialize a bit. (Just no COVID parties. Please.)
Of course, it would be safer if we all remained in strict quarantine indefinitely, but we’re social animals, and after a point, being alone isn’t good for our emotional and mental health.
Enter restaurants. The push and pull of wanting to support your favorite spots without endangering the staff (or yourself) can be overwhelming. So what’s a hungry health-conscious person to do?
To help, we asked integrative physician Shadi Vahdat, MD, for the do’s, the don’ts, and the definitely don’ts of restaurant dining. (First up: Be sure to tip extra right now — those restaurant workers are putting themselves at risk for your benefit!)
1. Call ahead
Before you’re even en route to your favorite spot, call and ask what steps they’ve taken to address COVID-19 safety. You should make sure they’re following CDC guidelines on safe employee screening and keeping ill employees at home for the appropriate time. If you’re ordering to go, calling ahead can help minimize your time standing in line.
And most importantly, wash your hands throughout the day when you’re out and about, especially after going to the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing, and before eating. Washing your hands with plain soap and water for 20 seconds is still the best way to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
2. Keep it outside
Although some cities and states have allowed indoor dining to resume, Vahdat doesn’t recommend it. The hard truth: Indoor venues are going to put you at much higher risk for infection than outdoor ones.
There’s a much lower risk of COVID-19 transmission in outdoor settings because the air circulation is much better. When we sit around in rooms with stale air, we’re putting ourselves in harm’s way unnecessarily. Even though ~winter is coming~, it’s much better to keep your dining to outdoor venues for the time being.
3. Stick to restaurants with touchless menus
Do you really want to handle a menu that a dozen other diners and servers have had their paws all over? A lot of places are opting for menus you can access with a QR code on your smartphone instead, and most restaurants these days keep their full menus online.
Way better to touch your own device than to handle a menu (although it’s also critical to keep your smartphone squeaky clean).
4. BYO hand sanitizer
Any restaurant you go to right now will almost certainly be properly stocked with hand soap and hand sanitizer. But some restaurant owners may not be aware of bans on certain hand sanitizers that contain toxic ingredients like methanol or 1-propanol, which are harmful when absorbed into the skin or life threatening if ingested.
The FDA has found these toxins in nearly 175 brands of hand sanitizer, and the list is still growing. The solution? Carry your own hand sani so you’ll know it’s made up of at least 60 percent alcohol and is from a brand that’s free of contaminants. (Try perusing the Environmental Working Group’s list of good quality hand sanitizers.)
5. Wear a mask when chatting with your server
Even if signs posted in the restaurant say you can take masks off when you’re seated, it’s a good idea to pop them back on when talking to your server or anyone you’re not quarantining with. After all, just because a sign says it’s OK doesn’t mean you should have your mask off when you’re within 6 feet of someone.
6. Keep your distance
Let’s revisit the 6-foot rule. While many restaurants have been given permission to operate if outdoor seating is provided, they may not be providing sufficient distance between tables and customers. Having a minimum of 6 feet between customers or tables is critical to reduce transmission.
Keep this in mind when standing in line to order or waiting for the restroom. The risk of transmission increases among people who are in close contact for a long period, so keep your distance and keep moving to minimize exposure.
7. Sharing is caring, but not during COVID-19
Salt and pepper shakers, iPads, pens, ketchup bottles — everything you touch at a restaurant can be a source of unwanted germs. Studies on the virus’s ability to survive on different surfaces have found that virus particles can survive on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours.
Avoid using reusable items that may not be sanitized or cleaned between customers. This means you can bring your own salt shaker or just give it a quick wipe with a sanitizing wipe. Minimize exchanging cash, and opt for touchless payment options when possible. And maybe don’t share food unless you’re certain both parties are COVID-19-free.
8. Wash your hands before and after eating
Remember when your parents told you to wash up before dinner? This rule has never been more important. Handwashing is essential to protect yourself from COVID-19 transmission.
Good old soap and water is still one of the best ways to break open the lipid membranes (protective coverings) of bacteria and viruses. The chemicals in soap pry open the virus’ fatty protective layer, making it less likely that the virus will survive. So when you wash your hands, you literally attack and wash away germs.
Here’s where things get tricky: Entering a poorly ventilated space like a restaurant bathroom to wash your hands may not be in your best interest. But if the restaurant is reasonably empty, there’s no line, and you can dart in and out, it’s better to wash up than to rely on hand sanitizer. (And make sure you’re using proper handwashing technique.)
Eating at a restaurant during a pandemic can feel overwhelming. To have the best experience possible, follow the restaurant’s guidelines (in addition to all CDC guidelines). And don’t forget to be patient and respectful. We’re all learning how to operate in this new normal. Follow the rules, and you’ll keep yourself and others safe.
Shadi Vahdat, MD, is the medical director of the LiveWell Center for Integrative Medicine. Specializing in both integrative healthcare and hospital medicine, Dr. Vahdat works with patients who are intrigued by holistic medicine and are ready to make serious changes in their lifestyle and reach their optimal healthy lifestyle.