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Is it safe to eat in a restaurant yet? Experts weigh in

As I munch on a sandwich for lunch from the comfort of my home office for the umpteenth time, I wonder when I’m going to feel comfortable enough to eat in a restaurant again. When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and the United States’ slow march towards normalcy, I’m one of the reticent ones. I can survive without candlelight ambience, a bouncy server, and a wine list for the time being, but I seem to be in the minority now. I have close friends and family that have heeded the call of cheesy bread baskets and bottomless mimosas, all while welcoming the risk of being around a whole lot of germy strangers.

While Georgia started their reopening way back at the end of April, most other states waited until recently to kick off Phase 1. Now, as we hit mid-summer, many more states around the country are partially or almost fully open, allowing people to eat outdoors, with some even allowing them to brave the indoors (I’m looking at you, Alaska.). Others, like Texas however, have reversed course on reopening, citing bars as a culprit for a recent spike in infections in their state. Other states, like Washington and Oregon have paused their reopening plans, out of an abundance of caution.

Is this all a bit confusing to you? Because it is to me. All this conflicting information leads a fearful American like me to wonder: Is it safe to eat in restaurants again anywhere, even if it’s outside — where we’re supposed to be significantly safer?

This virus has revealed a lot of surprising traits, says Robert Amler, physician and dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College. “You don’t have to be sick, coughing, and sneezing to pass the virus on to somebody else. In fact, you might be infected and not know it. Meanwhile, your exhaled breath can carry some of the virus,” Amler, a former CDC chief medical officer, adds. That’s why when you’re near other people, wearing a mask and social distancing is so important, even if you're totally over it.

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Outdoor environments are safer places to eat right now for many of the same reasons you loved dining al fresco before the pandemic. “The virus is inactivated more at warm temperatures than cold ones, which is why in places like Singapore [and other warm climates], there could be more virus stability inside air conditioned locations rather than outside. So in that respect being outdoors is better than being inside,” John Nicholls, clinical professor in pathology at Hong Kong University, tells Mic.

For the fast readers, “virus stability” sounds like a positive term but it means, essentially, that the virus gets comfortable and thrives. A huge, collective "no thanks" to that. Ultimately — while this is still being debated — warmer weather is believed to weaken the virus's transmission potential (but not eliminate it altogether).

“Most of the large outbreaks or clusters of COVID-19 have occurred indoors rather than outdoors where people tend to be more congregated,” Nicholls says. So here’s our first deduction: Right now, outdoor dining is safer than indoor dining.

There seems to be consensus among experts about outdoor dining, as well. Amler says that when you’re outside, your breath is putting out a few droplets — but the air is a great diluting factor. Especially if there’s a light breeze, these droplets will likely get dried out and diluted very quickly and they won’t last long enough to infect people in most cases. “Nothing is absolutely scientifically perfect, of course, but you certainly have a far lower risk of exposure to the virus when you’re outdoors,” Amler says. In plain language, embrace social distancing guidelines, for the time being.

What about eating indoors, though? I mean, fall will come for us eventually. “When you’re indoors and in an enclosed air space, the possibility for people’s exhaled breath to carry infected droplets to you is increased,” Amler says. “You’ll then inhale them and [likely] get infected, so that is a more difficult situation to protect against.” If you’re eating indoors, you’re in an enclosed space – removing your mask periodically to devour a plate of calamari — and also breathing in the air of those around you.

The most salient form of COVID-19 transmission, we’ve found, is direct contact with a contaminated person. But also of note is “the proximity to a potentially infectious person,” adds Nicholls. “So, you can control [transmission] by decreasing communal sharing or buffets, and also using clean cutlery and surfaces.”

Here’s something is pretty important to consider: Restaurants, especially during the summer months, have air-conditioning, and those systems can cause droplets to move more quickly and travel farther within enclosed spaces, which could potentially catalyze the spread of COVID-19. “But, with enough distancing, with enough people wearing masks with the overall prevalence of the virus dropping in the states that are allowing in-house dining the risk is reduced,“ Amler adds. I think we’ll have a wait a bit, at least in these states, for that. It's safe to say that if you live in a region with a high rate of infection, you should avoid dining in altogether.

If you do decide to eat indoors, Amler suggests making sure the restaurant has been inspected and permitted to reopen, and that everyone is wearing masks and social distancing however they can. That seems like common sense, but I’m sure you’re more than aware of several people in the news recently who have tried to barge into grocery stores and restaurants without wearing masks. Be sure the restaurant you decide to patronize is being as cautious as I hope you are. Many restaurants are featuring no contact ordering and payment, as well as using disposable plates and utensils. Don’t worry too much about the food itself, because it’s not an outstanding risk when it comes to dining out. Experts still assert that there’s very little chance of getting sick from germs sitting on surfaces.

One more thing to remember: The cloth masks that you wear are not for your protection, it’s for the protection of the people around you. So if you care about your fellow man, wear a dang mask. I know it’s exhausting to keep tabs on all these safety factors when you just want a burrito and some guac, but it’s necessary. “Everybody wants to get back to life,” Amler says. “We’re all sick and tired of this virus...but the virus is not tired of making us sick.”