In recent weeks, some states have announced expansions or the reopening of indoor dining: New Jersey establishments are now able fill their restaurants to 35% of their capacity, instead of 25%, and New York City and Portland, Oregon restaurants will be able to open their doors to some diners just in time for Valentine's Day.
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.
"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."
"We're still at a much higher level than we were last summer, depending on where you are," Liu continued. "It's not like things coming down means that we're doing well. It just means that things are going from really awful to less bad. There's still plenty of cases, there's still plenty of virus circulating."
Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of Yale's School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, cautioned that directly linking restaurant reopenings to major holidays and events could lead to more cases just as the cases associated with holiday gatherings are starting to go down.
"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."
The variants are not very prevalent in the United States right now, according to Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The variants "probably don't account for more than 2%" of new cases, but there are concerns that the variants could eventually become the dominant strains of coronavirus," Dowdy said. 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."
Dowdy said that people who do choose to go out to restaurants for indoor dining should go about it "the least risky way possible," especially during popular nights like the Super Bowl or Valentine's Day. 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."