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How can you dine out while wearing a mask? Experts weigh in

Taking a mask on and off is counterproductive, but there are some simple things you can do to be safer while dining out.
/ Source: TODAY

As states begin to lift stay-at-home orders and restaurants start to reopen, many diners have one question in mind: How can one eat a meal while wearing the recommended cloth face covering?

Even though restaurants in states like Georgia are taking measures to protect diners — such as spacing parties six feet apart and reducing capacity — those who do decide to eat out are going to assume some risk if they are dining with others, according to Durland Fish, PhD, professor emeritus of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.

"When people go out to a restaurant, they should just go with the person, or persons, that they have been sequestered with," Fish told TODAY Food. He added that this may prove difficult since the nature of dining out is social and people are excited to experience some part of pre-coronavirus life.

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Jade Flinn, MSN, who is the nurse educator for the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said that people should try to avoid restaurants that look overly crowded — if they do decide to dine outside the home at all.

"I do caution that when you go to a restaurant and you see that there is, you know, a fair number of people, maybe you need to choose another restaurant," Flinn said. "When you take a look at restaurants, you want to see what has changed in the environment in and of itself to help with reducing that transmission. Do they have every other table may be marked off doing have certain seats?"

She also added that there are simple things diners can do to make sure that they are not transmitting the virus to each other.

"Even sitting side by side would be helpful, so that you're not kind of like, spitting in each other's food, or things like that," Flinn said. Like Fish, she is concerned many people are very eager to dine with those they have not seen in weeks. "Takeout is still an option. Definitely do that if you can."

Since different parts of the country are handling the reopening of businesses differently, Flinn advised exercising caution, while practicing social distancing, before resuming normal activities.

While you're actually eating, it's pretty much impossible to wear a mask properly. However, Fish explained that taking a mask on and off between bites of food might actually increase the risk of spreading the virus from your mask to your hand.

The solution?

"Store (your mask) in a clean receptacle," said Flinn. "You want to keep it in a well-ventilated bag, usually a paper bag, so there's not really a chance that it would grow any mold or fungus from the humanity that might be trapped."

If you're going out to eat, masks should be safely stored in plastic or paper bags, so make sure to bring a clean one from home.

One restaurant group located in Hong Kong, where businesses are starting to open back up, said that they have already begun providing diners with a clean bag in which to store their masks with dining. Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of the Black Sheep Restaurant Group, said the gesture has been well-received by diners so far.

"Guests have been particularly positive about the mask bags," Hussain told TODAY in a previous interview. "For them, they have somewhere clean and dry to keep their mask during their meal, and for us it keeps our teams a little safer as having used masks sitting on tables and benches seems pretty unsanitary."

Both Flinn and Fish noted that it's also important for people to learn how to remove their masks safely: Always grab onto the ear straps, instead of touching the fabric covering your face, while removing a mask.

"When you think about taking it off, most people just grab it in front of their faces and kind of pull it off," Flinn said. "But that first side of your mask is probably the most contaminated, especially from the environment itself."

Fish also warned that there could be more surfaces in the restaurant which might be contaminated, such as the folders the check comes in or a pen that might have been given to other diners to sign their bill.

"Those are all potential sources of exposure," he explained. To avoid transmitting the virus from object to object, Fish recommended using your own pens, handing the payment method directly to the server, instead of using another object, and sanitizing any items that might have been touched by someone else.

Both Fish and Flinn continued to emphasize the importance of hand washing, especially before putting your mask back on. Current CDC guidelines emphasize washing your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.