In recent weeks, restrictions have been loosened on indoor dining in several areas: Some states, like Texas, have made the decision to remove mask mandates and open at 100% capacity. Other areas, like New Jersey and New York, are continuing to slowly expand capacity.
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.
While there are ways to dine out safely, experts cautioned against indoor dining, especially since case counts have only just started to decline and while rates of community spread remain high. While the vaccine rollout is ongoing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still advise wearing masks and maintaining social distancing in public settings, although fully vaccinated people can gather unmasked in small settings.
Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP at Columbia University and a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said that right now, she would recommend that even fully vaccinated people stick to outdoor dining or takeout options.
"For the time being, as we're scaling up vaccination, we're trying to suppress transmission of this virus," El-Sadr said. "We need to do everything possible to minimize the risk of transmission."
While the vaccine rollout is encouraging, experts caution that the amount of cases being diagnosed is still quite high. While cases have declined from their January peak, they're still higher than they were this summer.
"We are still deep in this pandemic," said Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California. "Although the numbers are going down, we are certainly seeing a lot of reasons why we need to double down on the measures that have been recommended all along, including avoiding being indoors with people outside your household and especially in situations where you can't mask consistently. ... Cases coming down is a good sign that a lot of those measures are helping."
Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of Yale's School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, cautioned that major holidays, like the upcoming St. Patricks' Day, could lead to a rise in cases. Gathering for other events, like spring break, could also cause trouble.
"We certainly have seen that there was a bump after Thanksgiving, and there was a bump after New Year's, and we do attribute that to families and friends gathering," Vermund said. "Anytime you extend your social circle or network, you run a greater risk of transmission, that's just infectious disease epidemiology 101. The bigger the crowds, the bigger the network, the more likely it is that transmission will occur."
Liu also said that with cases of more transmissible variants of the virus being reported, diners should be even more cautious about dining indoors, especially in venues that aren't distanced or have inadequate ventilation.
"Everything we're learning about (these new variants) suggests that we need to continue to be very rigorous and very consistent with sticking with the basics of masking, trying not to be indoors with people outside our household, and continuing to be vigilant," Liu said. "... These variants are very concerning."
While the current vaccine candidates are expected to work against the new variants, Liu said that giving the virus more opportunities to mutate could change that.
"As the virus spreads more, it is replicating more and that gives it more opportunity to produce more mutations that might allow it to spread more easily or cause more severe disease," she said. "... We are in a part of the pandemic where we need to be very, very careful."
Vermund said that the most important thing restaurants can do is make sure that they have air filtration and take precautions like distancing tables and ensure diners wear masks at all times except when eating. Diners should also take care to avoid mixing in large groups, try to limit themselves to only eating with members of their households, and be sure to stay home if they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms or have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus.
"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)."
In most cases, though, experts said people should stay home and try to hold on for just a little bit longer until more of the country is vaccinated.
"With these vaccines available and getting rolled out, hopefully we have a few more months of hanging in there," said Liu. "Sticking to the same measures will save us a lot of work while the vaccines are being rolled out, and it will give the vaccines a much better chance of success. ... Order lots of take-out. Let's keep these restaurants and businesses going while keeping everybody safe."
El-Sadr said that she would advise even fully vaccinated people take as many precautions as possible if they do choose to dine indoors.
"If somebody does have to be indoors, keep the mask on (as much as possible) and only pull the mask down when eating and drinking," El-Sadr said. "Pay attention to distancing between people, and ventilation as well. It behooves everybody to suppress transmission of this virus."
This article was updated on March 11, 2021 with information about vaccines and indoor dining.