(CNN) – As restaurants and bars reopen to the public, it is important to realize that eating will increase the risk of exposure to the new coronavirus.
Two of the most important public health measures to minimize disease are almost impossible in these situations: First, it is difficult to eat or drink while wearing a face mask. Second, social distancing is difficult in tight spaces, usually filled with seating backs and servers that weave among the busy tables throughout the evening.
So what should you look out for and how can you and the restaurant reduce the risk? Here are answers to some common questions.
How far should tables and bar stools be?
There is nothing magical about six feet – the number we often hear in official directions from government agencies. I would consider the minimum distance required for a safe distance.
The six-foot rule is based on old data on distance droplets that can spread respiratory viruses. These droplets tend to precipitate in the air within six feet, but this is not always the case. Aerosols can spread the virus over long distances, although there is some uncertainty about how often it spreads. Particles generated by sneezing or someone running can travel up to 30 feet.
Speech itself has been shown to generate respiratory droplets that could be infectious.
If there is a fan or electricity generated indoors, such as a restaurant, the particles will also travel farther. This was shown in an article from China: People in a restaurant down by an infected person became infected, even though the distance was more than six feet.
The closer the distance and the longer the time someone is exposed to a person who is infected, the greater the risk.
If the servers wear masks, is that enough?
If the servers wear masks, this will provide a layer of protection, but customers who eat and talk can still spread the virus.
One way to mitigate this risk in this imperfect situation, at least from a public health perspective, is to place tables surrounded by protective barriers, such as Plexiglas or screens, or to place tables in separate rooms with doors that can to be closed. Some states encourage restaurants to limit each table to just one server that delivers everything.
Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer says the restaurant industry is facing a “difficult path” in recovering from the pandemic. He told CNN’s Poppy Harlow that a return to safe eating “will not be an immediate light.”
Restaurants could also screen guests before entering, either by checking their temperature or asking questions about their symptoms and close contact with anyone recently diagnosed with Covid-19. It’s debatable, but restaurants in California have tried it. Washington State tried to require restaurants to record visitor contact information in the event of an outbreak, but she backed off to recommend just that.
It’s easier to screen employees. In fact, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that restaurants check their employees before reopening. But while screening employees for a possible infection can reduce the risk, it’s important to remember that people can be contagious six days before they develop symptoms. That is why masks, eye protection, social distance and hand hygiene are critical measures to prevent infection.
Do I have to ask for disposable utensils and wipe everything?
Regular washing of dishes, cups and utensils and washing of napkins and tablecloths will inactivate the virus. There is no need for disposable materials here.
The mass must also be cleaned and disinfected between uses and marked as disinfected.
The menus are a bit more problematic, depending on the material. Plastic menus can be disinfected. Disposable menus would be more ideal. Remember that even if someone touches a surface with an infectious virus, as long as they do not touch their mouth, nose or eyes, they must be safe. So when in doubt, wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer.
Can I get the virus from food in the kitchen?
The risk of contracting the new coronavirus from food is very low.
It is a respiratory virus whose main mode of infection is access to the upper or lower respiratory tract through droplets or aerosols that enter the mouth, nose or eyes. It must enter the respiratory tract to cause an infection, and it cannot do so in the stomach or intestinal tract.
The virus is also not very stable in the environment. Studies show that it loses half of its viral concentration after less than an hour on copper, three and a half hours on cardboard and just under seven hours on plastic. If the food had to be contaminated during cooking, the cooking temperature would probably deactivate a lot, if not the whole virus.
The use of masks and the maintenance of good hand hygiene from foodstuffs should significantly reduce the risk of food contamination.
Are outdoor seats or driving safer?
Vulnerable people may want to pass on dinner options and focus on the pickup or perhaps outside of eating if the conditions are right.
Drive or transport windows are probably the safest; transient interaction with an individual, when everyone wears masks, is a lower risk situation.
In general, the outdoor dining room is safer than the indoor dining room, and everything else is equal to a windless day due to the larger volume of air. Maintaining eye protection through goggles and periodic use of a mask between bites and sips will further reduce the risk.
Thomas A. Rousseau is Professor and Head of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine at the University of Buffalo, New York State University.