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Should unvaccinated people avoid bars and restaurants? Experts weigh in

One epidemiologist said that unvaccinated indoor diners increase the "level of risk of transmission" for everyone.
Illustration of people in a bar wearing masks with COVID spores except for one person
The simplest thing unvaccinated diners can do is get vaccinated — but if that is not an option, experts recommend sticking with outdoor dining and other lower-risk options.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic enters a new phase driven by the more transmissible delta variant, experts are warning against indoor dining for those who are not vaccinated.

Experts who spoke to TODAY Food were in agreement that unvaccinated people should avoid indoor drinking and dining, especially as coronavirus cases increase around the nation.

"As an unvaccinated person, you are much more likely to be infected, you're much more likely to transmit it to more people. The kind of networks that you get into when indoor dining are themselves quite dicey," said Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noting that indoor dining is one of the "higher-risk activities" to engage in during the pandemic.

Dr. Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, said that with the increased transmissibility of the delta variant and the concern about breakthrough cases, choosing to dine indoors while unvaccinated puts more people at risk than just the unvaccinated diner.

"It increases the level of risk of transmission for everyone around," Pollitt said. "I think that all has to be taken into consideration when people make that decision when they're unvaccinated and participating in that higher-risk activity."

What about vaccine mandates?

Some cities and restaurant organizations have begun their own vaccine mandates for diners and workers. In California, the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance recommended that its more than 300 members require proof of vaccination. New York City announced on Tuesday that vaccines would soon be required for many indoor activities, including indoor dining.

"Mandating vaccine requirements for restaurant and bar employees and customers to work and dine indoors is a very difficult step, but ultimately may prove an essential move to protecting public health and ensuring that New York City does not revert to restrictions and shut down orders that would again absolutely devastate small businesses that have not yet recovered from the pandemic," said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, in a statement.

Rigie noted that the requirement "will pose economic and operational challenges" to restaurants, but will "alleviate the burden that restaurants and bars face when implementing this policy voluntarily."

Dr. Andi Shane, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said that the vaccine requirement for indoor activity is "really important" and could help end the pandemic, and noted that similar policies already exist for some international travel and large group activities.

"If we can't rely on people's individual ability to say whether or not they've been vaccinated ... That little extra step does provide some security and some reassurance," she said. "I think that's one way that is effective in making sure that people who are vaccinated are participating safely and people who are unvaccinated are not participating and potentially exposing other people."

What can unvaccinated diners do?

The simplest thing unvaccinated diners can do is get vaccinated — but if that is not an option for them, Hanage recommends sticking with outdoor dining and other lower-risk options.

"There are a lot of things you can do which are not a heavy lift that help, one of them being outdoor dining," Hanage said, noting that even as a vaccinated person, he would still "always eat outdoors given the option."