For the Super Bowl this weekend, or if you are thinking ahead and planning for Valentine’s Day, the health experts say with the pandemic still raging, and with variants popping up, the safest choice for a special meal is takeout.
Despite the high number of cases, more states and cities are letting restaurants open their doors to diners, albeit with limitations.
Last Friday Los Angeles said its restaurants could reopen for outdoor dining with restrictions and 50% capacity. Chicago reopened with rules that encourage physical distancing and masks. New York announced restaurants could reopen at 25% capacity just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday that eating inside during a pandemic can be done, but only if it’s “done carefully.”
“If you do indoor dining, you do it in a spaced way where you don’t have people sitting right next to each other,” the director of the the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told CNN’s Don Lemon. “Good airflow” is key, he said. What you want to avoid is breathing in other people’s exhaled breath, which could be laden with virus.
Fauci said he feels for the restaurants that have been devastated by the pandemic. Restaurant and food service industry sales fell by $240 billion in 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“You know, people think sometimes that public health officials are oblivious to the economic considerations. Not at all – I mean, we are very empathetic towards that,” Fauci said. “But we still have to maintain the public health measures if we’re going to get our arms around this outbreak.”
You will not, however, catch Linsey Marr at a restaurant this Valentine’s. Marr is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who has been studying Covid-19 transmission. She said when she and her family drove to Colorado over Christmas they stopped at a restaurant, picked up take out, and ate outside.
“It was 30 degrees, but we were properly dressed. You can do it,” Marr said.
Marr is puzzled by the trend to reopen indoor dining. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines still say the safest way to enjoy and support restaurants is to take out food.
“I don’t know why restaurants are reopening,” said Marr. “I don’t think anything’s changed from the time the restaurants were closed. If anything, it’s riskier because of the new variants that are more transmissible.”
Marr said reduced capacity, improving ventilation, and adding filtration will help bring down the risk, but none of that eliminates it.
Marr points to a study from November that showed it only took minutes for two diners to become infected with Covid-19 from a diner who sat 15 feet away. The parties only overlapped by a few minutes at the restaurant, but because of the airflow, they got sick.
Marr said if someone just can’t help themselves, and really wants to eat away from home, stick with eating outdoors if you are in a region where you won’t get a side of frostbite with your lobster tail.
And outdoors has to truly mean outside.
“Not a structure that has been set up outdoors, because that becomes like indoors,” Marr said.
If you have to eat indoors, she said maybe if the restaurant was empty that would be OK.
The public health experts suggest avoiding busy times at the restaurant. Check the restaurant’s posted safety guidelines online before you go. Can you self park or do you have to valet? The CDC says if you have to valet, leave the windows open and air the car out for 15 minutes before dropoff and when picking up.
If there are crowds at the restaurant, find a table that’s about 10 feet away from the others. Masks are essential. The servers, the host, and the diners when not eating, all need to wear them.
Dr. Donald Milton adds that he’d like to see people wear higher-quality masks that fit well and can help protect the wearer, as well as protect others, especially with the more transmissible variants.
“We need better masks, especially for those who will be around people who aren’t wearing a mask,” said Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who studies how viruses are transmitted.
Not only can diners pass the virus to one another while they are eating or talking to each other, but those tiny droplets can go up into the air and float around for awhile and, depending on the restaurant’s ventilation, those droplets can spread beyond 6 feet.
Improved ventilation can help. Germ-killing ultraviolet-C lamps hung up at ceiling level, like those installed in some hospitals, can break apart viruses if air is circulated towards them.
“I think that there are ways that we can make restaurants and dining much safer,” Milton said. “We need to learn what they are and do these things, but it’s going to take some investment.”
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In the meantime, behavior changes can help. Make sure only people from the same household sit at one table.
“Not sitting close to another table can help, or sitting on a patio outdoors, maybe, but it all depends on what way the air is moving,” Milton said. “It’s really a lot about the plume. If you’re in that cloud and it’s the coronavirus, that’s bad news.”
For now, Milton said, for his Valentine’s dinner, he’s going to do delivery.
“It’s clear,” Milton said. “Any place people take off masks and congregate together is dangerous for transmission of SARS-CoV-2. That hasn’t changed.”
CNN’s Andrea Diaz and Sarah Moon contributed to this report