As States Reopen, Is It Safe to Go Back to Restaurants?

Business owner reopening a restaurant while wearing a facemask

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 is not known to spread through food. 
  • The CDC and FDA offer guidance and strict safety protocols for patrons wanting to dine out and restaurants wishing to reopen. 
  • The reopening of restaurants is determined by state and local governments; check your local health department for more information.

If eating a meal somewhere other than your kitchen sounds pretty fantastic, you’re not alone. As states reopen and we begin to emerge from our homes, restaurants rank high as a popular destination people are be eager to visit in person. But with new COVID-19 cases still popping up all over the country, many wonder if going back to a restaurant is safe.

And while that answer will be based on the level of risk that is comfortable to you, with a few precautions and some good sleuth work (aka check the restaurant for their safety measures), you could soon be grabbing a pizza or burger at your favorite food establishment.

Is It Safe to Go Back to a Restaurant?

Because cases of COVID-19 continue to climb in certain regions, Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, practicing family physician from Phoenix, AZ, says curbside pick-up is still the safest option. But if you’re considering sit-down service, it’s important to understand the steps that a restaurant is taking before you go to dine there.

To promote behaviors that reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established a set of guidelines for restaurants to follow that includes hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, all employees should be wearing face coverings, cleaning protocols, modified layouts with spacing between tables, physical barriers, signs, and messages for guests to stay safe, and more.

These strict guidelines set by the CDC and FDA are also accompanied by local and health departments imposing restrictions of their own.

Janilyn Hutchings, CP-FS, a food scientist at StateFoodSafety, says going to a restaurant is about as safe as going to the grocery store. “Since there is still no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food, the main risk you're taking in going out to eat is that you could catch the virus from one of your fellow diners,” she explains. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says there is currently no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with the transmission of the coronavirus. 

With that in mind, here are some precautions to take when visiting a restaurant.

Prepare for Safe Dining Before Leaving Home

Yes, the restaurants will be following strict protocols, but it’s still your responsibility to wear a mask and bring hand sanitizer. You may even want to pack alcohol-based sanitizing wipes to clean the table and other shared surfaces before eating. Also, consider eateries that may be less crowded or visit during off-hours.

Maximizing Safety While Dining Out

Hutchings says if you fall under the "higher risk" category, it's probably best to continue to get takeout or delivery for now. But if you're not at high risk or you intend to dine in any way, follow these tips:

  • Wear a mask to the restaurant and keep wearing it until you've been seated.
  • Make a reservation at the restaurant ahead of time, so you don't have to wait as long to be seated.
  • If you don't have a reservation, maintain six feet of distance between you and other diners while you wait to be seated. If the waiting area is small or crowded, try waiting outside the restaurant or in your car.
  • When your meal arrives, wash your hands in the bathroom for at least 20 to 30 seconds before eating. And don't forget to use a disposable towel to open the door handle as you leave so you don't re-contaminate your hands.
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer upon leaving the restaurant and repeat with a thorough hand-washing after you arrive home.

Scan the Restaurant for Safety Precautions

Before you sit down, scan the restaurant for safety precautions. Mariea Snell, assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Maryville University, says to look and see if the tables are being spaced a safe distance. 

Mariea Snell, DNP, APRN, FNP-C

The restaurant should be at a maximum of 50% capacity, and all staff should be using a mask.

— Mariea Snell, DNP, APRN, FNP-C

As you scan the dining area, you should see that staff are frequently cleaning tables, high-touch items, and the high-traffic areas as well as restrooms. Seating areas should have tables at least 6 feet apart and if it looks like large groups of people are crowded together, Snell says this is not a safe space for you to be. And finally, look to see who has outdoor dining as this is the safest option when eating at a restaurant.

Additionally, Hutchings says to look for the following best-practices:

  • Food workers are wearing masks.
  • There is sufficient soap and water in restrooms.
  • Occupancy restrictions or social distancing precautions are being practiced in common areas, like the waiting area and dining room.
  • The restaurant provides a clean environment overall.

“All of these precautions can help minimize the risk of catching COVID-19 while eating in a restaurant,” explains Hutchings.

Ask for Disposable Products or Bring Your Own

Silverware, napkins, and shared condiments such as ketchup, mustard, salt, and pepper can all be swapped for their disposable version. Call ahead to ask if the restaurant has disposable options available, and if not, bring your own.

Opt for Outdoor Dining

Temperatures are heating up, which means there couldn’t be a better time to opt for outdoor dining. When choosing a place to eat, consider frequenting restaurants that offer patio or deck seating. Being outdoors allows you to be in an open space with fresh air. Just make sure the tables are spaced at least six feet apart, and there are no common gathering areas.

Get In and Get Out

It’s not just the physical environment of the restaurant that has changed during the coronavirus pandemic; it’s also how we dine that looks a lot different now.

Even with safety precautions like masks, strict sanitizing protocols, operating at a reduced capacity, and spacing tables apart, indoor dining is still considered a moderate-risk for many people. To help keep the risk down and your experience as healthy as possible, use the following strategies:

  • Avoid lingering in the restaurant.
  • Make a reservation and stand outside until your table is ready. 
  • Scan the menu at home, so that you can order right away.
  • Skip the appetizer and dessert, or better yet, take your dessert to go. 
  • Give a social-distancing wave, rather than stand and talk to friends or acquaintances you see at the restaurant.

What This Means For You

Transitioning to a new normal is not easy, but it is possible. Taking steps to protect yourself and others is critical as we begin to resume life outside of our homes. Going out to eat does pose risks, especially for vulnerable populations.

That’s why it’s important to weigh the benefits versus the risks before you decide to visit a restaurant. And most importantly, choose the establishment wisely, follow safety protocols, and only go when you are ready.

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Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. CDC. Cases in the U.S.. Updated June 2, 2020.

  2. CDC. Considerations for Restaurants and Bars. Updated May 27, 2020.

  3. USFDA. Food Safety and Availability During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Updated April 1, 2020. 

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