You don't have to avoid restaurants, but eating out isn't risk-free during the coronavirus outbreak

You don't have to avoid restaurants, but eating out isn't risk-free during the coronavirus outbreak

  • Many schools, offices, conferences, and even Broadway shows have been cancelled in the US in an effort to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. 
  • But many restaurants are fully operational, and there's no official guidance yet on whether or not Americans should go out to eat. 
  • Experts told Insider people at higher risk for coronavirus should eat in, and even healthy people should recognize going out isn't risk-free. 
  • If you must eat out, choose places that aren't crowded and where you seated closely together.  
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

As Americans stage home offices, cancel social events, avoid public transportation, and otherwise practice social distancing in an effort to reduce the chances of contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus, many are wondering, "Can we at least go out to eat?" 

The answer, experts say, depends. Your own vulnerabilities to the disease, where you live, and the restaurant you're considering going to itself all matter. Plus, your responsibilities to your community play a role in the answer, too. 

"So much of this is situation specific," Lauren Dunning, a director for the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, who was most recently at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health focusing on chronic and infectious diseases.

Here, experts break down exactly what you should consider before going out to eat. 

People over 50 shouldn't eat out, one expert said

Older adults and those with underlying health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases, are especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and getting seriously ill from it. 

"I would advise those that are above 50 and/or have pre-existing health conditions to avoid going out to eat altogether," Amit Malik, former clinical director of operations for various hospitals and health systems including New York Presbyterian Hospital, told Insider. 

That doesn't mean healthy, young people should rush out for every meal, though. "If you're going out to eat, you are putting yourself at risk, period," Malik said, because the virus spreads when people are in close quarters, which outside of a pandemic, are the appeal of restaurants and bars. 

"It's recommended for everyone, regardless of age and health status, to avoid being in large crowded places for the foreseeable future," Malik said, and to, of course, wash and dry your hands frequently and thoroughly. 

A crowded food hall is not the safest place to dine during the coronavirus pandemic.
Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Choose where you dine wisely

If you do choose to go out to eat, where you go matters.

Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, clinical assistant professor at University of Tennessee Erlanger and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, suggested people ask: How many people will be there? How close will you be to all of those people? How well ventilated is the space or how much people can move around?

"The more people, the more closely packed, and the more poorly ventilated the space, you can imagine that's a bad situation," she said. On the other hand, she said, going to an uncrowded, open-air restaurant with a friend or two is a lower risk. 

Some jurisdictions are making these questions easier by eliminating the possibility of walking into a crowded restaurant altogether. In New York City, for one, venues including bars and restaurants that seat under 500 people are required to reduce capacity by 50% starting Friday at 5 p.m. Venues higher than that capacity have been ordered to close.

But if you live somewhere that hasn't instituted similar guidelines, Malik suggested avoiding places where groups of people are huddled around the bar or high-tops, as well as restaurants that have waiting areas where patrons are hanging out while they wait for their table to be prepared. 

"It's wise at this time to avoid being in close contact with strangers for any extended period of time given the facts about how this virus is spread," he said. 

How the food is prepared and served matters, too  

It's not just the other patrons that can get you sick; how the food is prepared and served makes a difference too. 

"I'd recommend avoiding restaurants that have poor ratings from food inspections — those are restaurants you'd want to avoid anyway," Sue Ann Bell, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and expert on the health effects of disasters, told Insider.

Any buffets you do come across are best avoided too, unless there's a designated server to load your plate, she added.  

The restaurant industry is taking its own precautions to help keep customers and staff safe, with some adding hand-sanitizing stations or signs reminding people to wash their hands and stay home if they're sick. 

Consider your community and other options  

As with all coronavirus prevention protocols, it's not just about keeping yourself safe, it's about keeping your neighbors and community healthy too, Dunning stressed. 

So, on the one hand that may mean healthy young people should consider eating in to avoid being a vector of illness for someone more vulnerable; but on the other hand it could mean patronizing a local establishment to help lower-wage workers continue to get their paychecks.

If you're vulnerable to the illness or would rather stay in, you can still help your community by ordering from a favorite restaurant through a service like Door Dash or Uber Eats, Bell said. Or, Dunning suggested, call ahead to see if you can pick something up to eat at home or buy a gift certificate from the joint to use later. 

"We all want to do our part," Dunning said. 

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