(The conversation: Thomas A. Russo, University of Buffalo) – Now that some restaurants and bars are reopening to the public, it's important to realize that eating out can definitely increase your risk of exposure to the new coronavirus.
Two of the most important public health measures to keep diseases to a minimum are almost impossible in these situations: First, it is difficult to eat or drink with a face mask. Second, social distancing is difficult in tight spaces normally filled with consecutive seats and servers weaving between tables occupied all night.
So what should you watch out for and how can you and the restaurant reduce your risk? Here are answers to some common questions.
How far should the tables and stools be?
There's nothing magical about 6 feet, the number we often hear in formal guidance from government agencies. I would consider the minimum distance required for a safe space.
The "6 foot,quot; rule is based on old data on how far droplets can spread respiratory viruses. These drops tend to settle in air less than 6 feet, but that is not always the case. Aerosols can spread the virus over long distances, although there remains some uncertainty about how common this spread is. Particles generated by sneezing or someone running can travel up to 30 feet.
Talking alone has been shown to generate respiratory drops that could be infectious.
If a fan or current is generated in an enclosed space, such as a restaurant, the particles will also travel further. This was shown in a document from China: People in an upwind restaurant of an infected person became infected despite the distance being greater than 6 feet.
The closer the distance is and the longer someone is exposed to a person who is infectious, the greater the risk.
If the servers wear masks, is that enough?
If the servers wear masks, that will provide a layer of protection, but the eating and talking clients could still transmit the virus.
One way to mitigate that risk in this imperfect situation, at least from a public health point of view, would be to have tables surrounded by protective barriers, such as Plexiglas or screens, or to set tables in separate rooms with doors that can be closed. Some states are encouraging restaurants to limit each table to a single server that offers everything.
Restaurants can also screen guests before they enter, either with temperature checks or questions about symptoms and their close contacts with anyone newly diagnosed with COVID-19. It is controversial, but restaurants in California have tried. It is easier to evaluate employees. In fact, the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that restaurants have an employee review before they reopen. But while screening for possible infections in employees may lower the risk, it's important to remember that people can be infectious six days before they develop symptoms.
Should I order disposable utensils and clean everything?
Regular washing of dishes, glasses and utensils, and washing of napkins and tablecloths will inactivate the virus. There is no need for disposable products here.
The table should also be cleaned and disinfected between uses and marked as disinfected.
The menus are a little more troublesome, depending on the material. Plastic menus could be disinfected. Disposable menus would be more ideal. Remember, even if someone touches a surface that has infectious viruses, as long as the mouth, nose, or eyes are not touched, they must be safe. So when in doubt, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.
Can I get the virus from kitchen food?
The risk of becoming infected with the new food coronavirus is very low.
This is a respiratory virus whose main mode of infection is to access the upper or lower respiratory tract through droplets or aerosols that enter the mouth, nose, or eyes. You need to enter the respiratory tract to cause infection, and you cannot enter through the stomach or intestinal tract.
The virus is also not very stable in the environment. Studies have shown that it loses half of its viral concentration after less than an hour in copper, three and a half hours in cardboard and just under seven hours in plastic. If food becomes contaminated during preparation, the cooking temperature would likely inactivate much, if not all, of the virus.
The use of masks and the maintenance of good hand hygiene by food preparers should significantly reduce the risk of food contamination.
Are outdoor seating or a car ride safer?
Vulnerable people may want to skip dinner options and focus on pickup or perhaps off-dinner if conditions are appropriate.
Windows or carry-on luggage are probably the safest; Transient interaction with an individual when everyone wears masks is a lower risk situation.
In general, outdoor meals are safer than indoor meals, as everything else is the same on a windless day due to the higher volume of air. Maintaining eye protection through glasses and intermittent use of face masks between bites and sips would further decrease the risk.