In recent weeks, restrictions have been loosened on indoor dining, and many states have removed indoor mask mandates for vaccinated people following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have cautioned against indoor dining, and many still say that there's reason to be vigilant. While COVID-19 cases are going down, there are still several thousand cases being diagnosed each day, putting diners and restaurant staff alike at risk. In November, a study from Stanford University called full-service, indoor restaurants potential "superspreader" settings, and a recent analysis from the University of California highlighted the risk to workers: Line cooks had a 60% increase in mortality associated with the pandemic, according to CNBC.
However, fully vaccinated diners who choose to eat inside face significantly less risk of contracting the virus, especially if they are in an area with high vaccination rates.
"For the most part, it's certainly much safer than it's been for the past year and half if you're fully vaccinated," said Dr. Ian Gonsenhauser, the chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Gonsenhauser developed COVID-19 procedures for the facility.
What's the safest way to dine out?
Gonsenhauser said that if you are vaccinated, indoor dining is "safe again," especially if you are in an area with low transmission and high vaccination rates. People who are fully vaccinated are still at some risk for contracting coronavirus, but that risk drops as the people around them get vaccinated.
"Given the number of people that are now vaccinated, 50% of the country has at least their first dose of the vaccine and about 40% have been vaccinated completely," said Gonsenhauser. "That means there's a lot less COVID in our communities ... And so if you're vaccinated, you have a low chance to begin with, given your vaccine status, and your chance and your risk is lowered even further by there being fewer cases in the community."
Right now, the CDC lists indoor dining and outdoor dining as safe activities for vaccinated people. Dr. Edgar Sanchez, an infectious disease expert at Orlando Health, said that outdoor dining would be even safer than indoor dining, since the risk of transmission is incredibly low.
How can I make dining indoors safer?
There are a few ways to make dining indoors even safer if you're fully vaccinated. Gonsenhauser recommends making sure that you're dining with people who are also fully vaccinated, saying that that would be "even safer" than dining with a group of mixed vaccination statuses.
Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, said that the most important thing restaurants can do is make sure that they have air filtration and take precautions like distancing tables. Diners should also be sure to stay home if they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms, even if they are fully vaccinated.
"If a group gets together at a restaurant, and mixing, and it happens to be at a restaurant, that's not the restaurant environment's fault," Vermund said. "... It was the fact that there was a gathering, maskless, with people in relatively close proximity when they should have been six feet (apart)."
What if I'm not vaccinated yet?
Sanchez said that people who are not vaccinated or have not completed their vaccine regimen should still avoid indoor dining.
"If you're not vaccinated, the virus still has not gone away, there are still unacceptable levels in our community, and you are just as likely to die from this virus now than you were six months ago if you're not vaccinated," said Sanchez. "Anything that was safe or unsafe six months ago holds now."
If you are unvaccinated, Sanchez recommends sticking to outdoor dining and takeout or delivery options. If you do dine out, try to only dine with people that are in your household, and wear a mask as much as possible if you're not yet vaccinated.
Should I worry about surfaces or food?
Gonsenhauser said that if you're a vaccinated individual there is "almost no risk" of contracting COVID-19 from a contaminated surface.
"We learned pretty early on that surface transmission was very low risk to begin with," he said. "I won't say it's no risk, but it's almost no risk."
Food also poses "almost no risk whatsoever," especially to vaccinated individuals. Gonsenhauser said that transmission through food would require a sick restaurant worker to cough on or sneeze or spit directly into your food.
However, proper hand hygiene and other precautions, like disinfecting surfaces, can reduce the risk of coronavirus and other transmissible diseases.
"If you've enjoyed not having a cold in the past year and half, you may want to think about continuing to do some of those things," Gonsenhauser said.
This article was updated on May 26, 2021 with information about vaccines and indoor dining.