How can I safely go out to dinner?
It’a crazy question that amazingly sounds normal in these crazy coronavirus days. Instead of leaving our cares behind to eat out, we have to bring them along. We mask up. We nervously eyeball whether the next table is actually the recommended 6 feet away.
You’re going to think I’ve gone crazy too, but I hope it lasts.
Let me explain. I’m as ready as anyone to leave behind the scary and unrelentingly heartbreaking losses of lives and livelihoods. On a more mundane level, I’m sick of trying to keep my mask from fogging up my glasses.
What I hope remains is the way the pandemic forces us to pay more attention to each other.
I came to that view as I looked for a set of quick tips to eating out safely. I love going to restaurants. I also like being healthy. So I started researching how I could do both—to, um, have my cake and eat it too?
What I found was not a checklist, but a whole different way of thinking.
The simplest answer to “how can I safely go out to dinner during the pandemic” is that you can’t. If you want to be as safe as possible, stay home. Any time you step outside, things start getting complicated. You can reduce your risk of catching the virus, but not down to zero.
As I ventured out to restaurants after they started their staged reopenings earlier this year I dined through the good and the bad. I felt comforted when one host took my temperature before seating me. Another restaurant worried me as the charming waitress stood maskless over our table enthusing about everything from the menu to her home town.
Meals don’t appear by magic
My “aha” moment came at an especially careful pizza place where everything delivered to the table was disposable and we were asked to throw it all in the trash on our way out the door. A card at the table asked us to follow a set of precautions, including a request that we put our masks on whenever the server came to the table.
The light bulb clicked on. The virus isn’t about me, it’s about community.
That flash of insight brought me back to my daughter’s childhood when we read the Harry Potter books together. Among the memorable passages were those describing the students at the Hogwarts wizarding school feasting on meals that would magically appear in front of them as they sat at the long tables in the great hall. Those banquets were moments of carefree privilege until one of the main characters, Hermione, learned how the food got there—an army of elves toiled in the basement under what Hermione saw as inhumane conditions. She tried to organize the workers, to the eye-rolls of the other students, forming the Society for the Promotion of Elfiish Welfare and cluelessly passed out buttons with the acronym SPEW.
Though the elf labor passages played for laughs, the notion of appreciating our chefs, waiters, hosts, and cooks is a serious one that these days. Acting on that appreciation could just help save your favorite restaurant by keeping it healthy both physically and financially.
Restaurants are in trouble. 100,000 closed permanently or long-term this year, throwing nearly 3 million employees out of work. In August, sales were down 34% and expenses were up for 60% of restaurant operators. A National Restaurant Association survey found that 43% of full service restaurant owners say if conditions don’t improve, they’ll be out of business in six months.
And that’s the surprising part of how to answer the question about safely dining out. As you weigh your own health priorities, also consider the health, both physical and financial, of your servers. Will you put on your mask as they approach? Will you protect their income by patronizing the business?
On the internet you’ll find plenty of tips for dining-out precautions. But you need to fit those tips into your own values and view of the world. Here’s my different kind of checklist for figuring out your strategy for keeping us all healthy.
1. Don’t go out
Nothing in life is safe, but staying in is certainly one clear way to limit your exposure. Health specialists say this is especially good advice to follow if you’re in a risk group—older people, or people in less-than-perfect health suffer the worst effects from the virus. You might want to avoid restaurant visits if you’r in regular contact with children, grandchildren, parents, or grandparents you might pass the the virus to, or from whom you might catch it.
Even in those cases you don’t have to swear-off restaurants. Nearly every eating place offers carry-out, curbside pickup, drive-throughs, and delivery options. The proliferation of food trucks by enterprising businesses might even be bringing a restaurant nearby. Hey, ya gotta get food somehow, and restaurants are making it so you can go out to eat without going out to eat.
And if you have any symptoms, for gosh sakes don’t go out and spread what you may have. This common-sense advice isn’t even just for COVID-19. When I worked in an office as a supervisor I would often have to tell ambitious but ailing employees, “Don’t come in to work. We don’t want your germs.”
2. Know your priorities
Life is risk. Driving a car is dangerous, so you take precautions, from wearing a seat belt to stopping at red lights.
Your personal risk assessment might restrict you to only getting food delivered. If you want to go out and socialize, look over the list of steps that will make you feel safe (see item #3).
I’ve got a small list of virus buddies who I know haven’t had symptoms and share my sense of the precautions to take, including mask wearing and keeping our distance. We always request an outdoor table. As the weather cools, we’ll have to reconsider how we might meet over meals. Watch for restaurants applying their creativity to finding safe ways to serve this winter.
Gathering with more casual friends beyond my close virus circle usually means not going out to a restaurant, but instead finding a large enough room in the house to stay separated. We still patronize a restaurant, figuring that ordering in and pulling dinner out of containers will mean less exposure than my own cooking.
These kind of negotiations with your guests are a way that virus protections can bring us together. Learning each other’s health priorities is another way of paying close attention to each other.
3. Ask the restaurant
Go to the restaurant’s web site. Better yet, call them on the phone and ask what they’re doing to keep customers safe. They should have good, quick, confident answers. They should be thrilled to talk with you about them. If not, don’t go there.
The most basic questions to ask are whether customers and employees are required to wear masks, and how social distancing is carried out. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a web site for Personal and Social Activities that includes a heading for “Dining at a Restaurant.”
From the CDC and other experts, here’s a list of what to ask about and look for at a restaurant to reassure you they have a priority of protecting your health:
- How do they handle crowds so that groups of people aren’t close together in tight spaces? People on the waiting list should be outside.
- Before you get to your table, it should be empty. No utensils, condiments, or salt and pepper shakers. Research indicates the virus doesn’t spread through food, but it does spread in the air and on surfaces. Menus should be brought to your table on disposable paper or a disinfected digital device.
- Watch for signs the restaurant takes your health seriously. Do they have masks and other safety requirements posted? Do they enforce mask wearing? Is hand sanitizer handy? Do they have a time limit for how long you can stay at the table (the longer you hang out, the more chance you have to catch or spread a virus)?
4. Proceed with caution
Dining out don’ts include, don’t share food, no drink dispensers, buffets, or salad bars. Don’t valet park the car. Bring your own pen to sign the check.
All that may take the carefree out of your outing, but as the pandemic wears on, rather than get worn down we might settle into a more deliberate dining that lets us slow down and pay attention to how friends, servers, and customers affect each other over a meal.
One of the most inexplicably effective bits of advice I’ve received is that when you’re feeling sad or off your game, overtip. I’ve never figured out why it works, but it does. These days, who isn’t feeling lower than normal? Try it.
One day we’ll be able to drop our guard when going into a restaurant. I hope we won’t lose the habits of seeing the people behind the magic of a memorable time around a table, and that we take care of those who take care of us.
And tip well. You might just help save your favorite restaurant.