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With omicron in the US, is it safe to dine indoors now?

As the omicron variant spreads, Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist, offers advice on indoor dining.

As the world rushes to determine how much of an impact the omicron variant will have on the pandemic, experts are urging people to exercise caution around higher-risk activities like dining indoors.

Since the early stages of the pandemic, indoor dining has been considered one of the riskiest activities, since there's no way to wear a mask while eating or drinking. Restaurants have installed plexiglass barriers and some cities have required proof of vaccination to make the activity safer, but there are still questions about the new variant — such as if it's more transmissible or if it will evade vaccines.

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, said that he would urge people to be cautious while scientists work to answer those questions, but emphasized that right now, people will have to rely on their own personal risk calculations and consider factors like their vaccination status and the strength of their immune systems.

"I think it depends on who the person is and how vulnerable that individual is," Hirsch said. "If a person has not been vaccinated, I don't think they should go out to indoor dining, in terms of their own vulnerability and addition to the vulnerability of others. If a person has been fully vaccinated and they are free of some of the risk factors for severe COVID and they're not immunosuppressed, I think indoor dining would be kind of a reasonable option."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have not currently issued specific guidance about indoor dining and omicron, but continue to recommend that people "follow prevention strategies such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission." So far, there have been no restrictions put in place on indoor dining due to the omicron variant.

The CDC also recommends following preventative strategies like frequent hand washing, maintaining social distance, and getting vaccinated if you are eligible. Currently, those over the age of 5 are eligible for a vaccine, and those over the age of 18 are eligible for a booster dose.

Hirsch emphasized the importance of vaccination, especially during this stage of the pandemic. He also said that potential diners should consider the specific regulations and coronavirus situation in one's area: Some communities are experiencing severe rates of community spread and have few mitigation strategies in place. Other places, like New York City, require proof of vaccination status to dine indoors.

"I think having confidence that the people around you are vaccinated is a huge aspect of the calculation," Hirsch said.