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As coronavirus continues to spread, is it safe to go to restaurants?

Are restaurants going to shut down? Experts explain the relative risks of dining out as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rises.
At the Plumed Horse restaurant in Saratoga, California, tables have been moved further apart to allow for greater social distancing while dining.
At the Plumed Horse restaurant in Saratoga, California, tables have been moved further apart to allow for greater social distancing while dining. Plumed Horse

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/ Source: TODAY
By Katie Jackson

There might never be a better (or worse) time to snag a reservation at that amazing restaurant that's usually booked up for months.

As concern over the coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate, more people are staying home. Eateries are emptying out and Chinese restaurants in particular have been facing a significant drop in business for weeks.

But if you're healthy and hungry, is it really necessary to forgo dining out? Here's what industry experts and those who study infectious disease say about whether it's OK to enjoy a meal outside the home right now.

Several buffet restaurants in Las Vegas are shutting down to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Getty Images

"Any time you increase your exposure to public areas, you increase your risks," Charles P. Gerba, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Arizona, told TODAY Food.

But it's not only people you should be avoiding. It's just as important to avoid the surfaces they may have touched. This is especially true if you're in an environment where you'll be putting things into your mouth. Restaurants most at-risk for this type of behavior are buffets, where all diners use the same serving utensils and have access to a lot of food that's exposed to the air. Earlier this week, MGM Resorts International temporarily closed all of its buffets in Las Vegas and other resorts converted their buffets to serving stations.

However, that isn't necessarily a green light to go eat at traditional sit-down restaurants.

People with underlying medical conditions, those who have recently traveled to countries hit hardest by the novel coronavirus, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should stay home. Depending on where you live in the country, local officials may be advising people (even those displaying no symptoms of an illness) not to congregate at restaurants or bars: Those guidelines should be followed.

If you are an individual in good health, there are several steps you can take to minimize the risk of contracting a virus, or spreading germs to others, if you decide to dine out. Based on his studies, Gerba said the germiest areas in most restaurants are actually the sponges and cloths used to wipe down tables. These studies also indicated that menus and child seats are almost just as bad when it comes to harboring germs. "If you're gong out to eat, bring hand sanitizer and a disinfectant wipe to wipe your table," recommended Gerba.

In the age of social distancing there may be fewer tables for workers to wipe down.

Anejo Tribeca is bringing removing several tables in its dining room due to coronavirus concerns and will now only have 45 seats instead of 65.Anejo Tribeca

The critically acclaimed Plumed Horse in Saratoga, California, is being proactive by removing more than half of its 36 tables in the main dining room. This allows for at least 6 feet of space between groups, which is as far as the virus can travel. Normally, Plumed Horse only has 2 feet of space between its tables. Despite this change, owner Josh Weeks told TODAY he's had more than 1,000 cancellations for future reservations.

Weeks isn't the only restaurateur practicing social distancing.

Benjamin Ramos, general manager of Añejo Tribeca in New York City, has removed every other two-top table from his restaurant. Sam Nidel, co-owner of Motel Morris in New York City, told TODAY he's busy re-arranging his space after receiving word that Mayor Mayor Bill de Blasio is requiring all city restaurants to remove 50 percent of their seating.

"Unfortunately, I think all restaurants will suffer and I think full service will suffer the most because there’s a perception that they’re more dangerous (than other public places)," Rick Camac, dean of restaurant and hospitality studies at the Institute of Culinary Education, said.

If you want to go out to eat, call the restaurant ahead to see if they've enacted any new measures (like enhanced cleaning practices or moving tables) to help combat the spread of germs.

"(Before dining out) you would have to feel confident that the restaurant is cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces touched by fellow diners," said Dr. Brittany Brinley, a physician based in Los Angeles. "Evidence suggests the novel coronavirus can remain active on surfaces for hours to days." For Brinley, it's not just the act of going to a restaurant that might be problematic; if you're going to any public area, you'll be more likely to come into contact with someone who may have been exposed to the virus.

For now, the doctor believes that in order "to limit exposure and spread as much as possible," it's preferable to eat meals at home.

"While it may be advised and help technically-speaking ... if you go to a half-empty restaurant but then get on the subway, ride in an Uber, get into an elevator with others, etc., you’re not really practicing social distancing," Camac said.

Some restaurants have decided that it's not even worth the risk to stay open right now.

On Friday, Danny Meyer, one New York City's most successful restaurateurs, announced that he would temporarily be closing all 19 restaurants in his Union Square Hospitality Group.

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If the confirmed cases of coronavirus continue to rise in the U.S., it wouldn't be surprising if more restaurants followed suit, or transitioned to a delivery service model in the coming weeks. Food delivery apps like Grubhub, Instacart and Postmates are now offering no-contact drop-off options.

Another way to support local businesses? Call and ask if your favorite restaurant is offering gift cards that can be used at a later date.

Of course, like millions of Americans, you can also visit a grocery store and prepare your own food.

In that case, Gerba said it's important to not use a self-checkout touch screen unless you have hand sanitizer and immediately wash your hands after using it. Gerba also recommended taking advantage of the disinfectant wipes available at the entrance of most grocery stores to thoroughly clean the handles on your basket or cart.