Dining out has changed: 6 mistakes to avoid at a reopened restaurant

Is it safe to eat at restaurants now? It can be if you know the rules and follow them, experts say.
/ Source: TODAY

If you can't remember the last time you ate inside a restaurant, you're not alone. Fortunately for many business owners, as restaurants across the country start to reopen, to-go orders are turning into dine-in orders.

Still, 24% of Americans say they're not planning on eating out until there's a COVID-19 vaccine. And there's a good reason to be cautious, experts say. TODAY Food spoke to several health and culinary industry insiders about what diners need to know before returning to their favorite restaurants. In addition to forgetting to wash your hands after touching various surfaces and patronizing crowded restaurants during peak hours, here are the top six things experts recommend not doing while visiting a newly reopened restaurant.

1. Don't dine with people you don't live with

Giorgio Viscione, owner of Gigaprint, tests plexiglass separators produced by his company with Italian restaurant owner Valerio Calderonei in Rome, Italy in April. Will restaurants be adopting this setup in the future?Fabio Frustaci / EPA/EFE via Shutterstock

"Ideally, your dining companions should be your household members," said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician who practices at Tufts Medical Center. Doron recommended not eating with anyone who you wouldn't otherwise be spending time within six feet of or anyone you wouldn't wear a face covering around.

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Dr. Ted Bailey, chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, agreed. "There continue to be high numbers of COVID-19 infections of which many are known to be asymptomatic," explained Bailey. "To dine with people with whom you don't live is to create the kinds of close mask-less contact between members of different households that allows the virus to move from one home to another and thereby through communities."

2. Don't show up with symptoms, even mild ones

While that low-grade fever or minor sore throat might not get in your way of enjoying a delicious meal, that doesn't mean it won't affect others.

"We all need to do our part by staying away from others when we have even mild symptoms that might represent COVID-19," said Doron. These symptoms include sore throat, body aches, feeling feverish, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea and loss of smell or taste.

3. Don't forget to do your homework

You might already know what's on the menu and the name of the maitre d', but that's not enough these days.

"Familiarize yourself with the CDC website," advised Svetlana Savchitz, owner of New York City restaurant Sveta. "By doing this, you’ll be able to determine if you’re at an establishment that isn’t following proper safety precautions." For example, all patrons of Sveta will be required to get their temperature checked at the door.

Also check out your local government's health authority website. A restaurant reopening in New York City, where there have been more than 16,000 deaths since March, will probably look a lot different than a restaurant reopening in rural Montana, where the entire state has recorded 17 deaths to date. Doing a quick Google search of regulations in your area will also help reveal which restaurants are making headlines for things like not allowing employees or patrons to wear masks. If employees don't feel safe working there, it's OK to avoid eating there.

4. Don't just show up

Gone are the days when you could (or should) just show up at a restaurant and expect to be seated no matter what. Most states are reopening in phases. In Texas for example, restaurants opened at 25% capacity on May 1. Currently, they're allowed to operate at 50% capacity; this will increase to 75% on June 12. Since restaurants aren't able to serve as many patrons at a time, it's best to plan ahead.

"I would call in to every restaurant from now on to make a reservation and ask them about their walk-in policy and how crowded the restaurant will be," advised Savchitz. She also recommended using YelpWaitlist to find up-to-date restaurant wait times.

5. Don't stay too long and don't be impatient

Yes, you've had to wait months for this moment, but that doesn't mean you should linger around the hostess to stand demanding to be seated. COVID-19 hasn't been linked to contaminated food, but the longer you stay in a communal space, the greater the risk of coming in contact with the virus.

That said, it's just as important to be patient and understanding. "Our entire industry had to change business models and the rules are constantly being rewritten," explained Tanner Agar, owner of Rye, a restaurant in McKinney, Texas. In addition to sanitizing like there's no tomorrow, most restaurants are operating with partial staffs, dealing with broken supply chains and juggling new revenue streams.

"We want you here — it's literally our career to serve you," said Agar, "but please, cut us a break."

6. When it comes to food, sharing is no longer caring

Think twice before you ask someone to pass the ketchup or if they want to split dessert with you.

"Although most transmission of COVID-19 occurs through close contact with someone who is infected, fomites (objects) can transfer the virus from one person to another," said Doron.

Ideally, restaurant staff members are disinfecting every surface between parties. However, to reduce points of contact, many restaurants may be utilizing disposable dishes and utensils, or offering single-use condiment packets instead of communal containers. If you do want to split a dish, ask your server to have the kitchen split it before bringing it to the table.

Finally, don't forget to tip — generously, if you can afford it, and the service was excellent. For restaurants on the brink, that kind of sharing is truly caring.