We are in the midst of an omicron surge and while few restrictions remain on restaurant dining, there is still much you can do to reduce the risk.
We are currently in the midst of a second major wave of omicron infections in Aotearoa but, in stark contrast to the immediate alert level jumps of years past, nothing has changed in our traffic light settings.
Nowhere is this apparent dissonance between case numbers and our nearly non-existent restrictions more glaring than when you walk into a cafe, restaurant or bar. In hospitality, almost all Covid-19 precautions that were once in place have been removed. Vaccine passes are gone, distancing is over, occupancy figures are out, seated-only service is abolished. The only remaining restriction requires workers in contact with the public in indoor hospitality settings to wear a medical-grade face mask, but mandatory masks for customers are no longer.
Dining out is part of the rhythm of daily life in New Zealand, but considering the specific set of conditions that come with it – strangers in enclosed spaces eating and chatting without masks, an absence of ventilation requirements and workers often with limited illnesses leave – the specific risk these environments pose for the transmission of Covid-19 becomes apparent.
As we continue to battle this current tide, here is a list of simple things you can do to protect yourself and those around you while still getting your culinary fix.
Go for take-out
Probably the surest thing you can do to avoid transmission when dining out is to avoid dining out. But that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a professionally cooked treat – get takeout. What this alternative lacks in seamless service and a lively atmosphere, it makes up for in the benefits of being in your sweatpants and slippers, potentially in front of the TV and just steps from the bed. I can highly recommend getting a few friends together to try something new to take away, and waiting for a table is just as long as you need to clear letters and receipts from your kitchen bench or your dining table.
My relationship with outdoor tables right now is like a moth to a flame. It may be cold, but it’s worth wrapping up in your warmest layers. As we now know, Covid-19 (along with other respiratory viruses spreading through the population) spreads through the air, so indoor environments with a group of strangers talking and eating without masks are unfortunately an environment quite ideal for transmission. . To counter this, look for places with outdoor seating where those pesky Covid-19 particles can drift before you or anyone else has a chance to inhale them.
Think about ventilation
But what if it is not possible to sit outside? “I would look at the ventilation,” says Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, adding that questions to keep in mind are whether the windows are open and how big the space is. University of Auckland aerosol chemist Joel Rindelaub agrees, explaining that choosing a location with an open window or door can make a huge difference, even if it’s just opening a window. crack on both sides of a part. “It’s especially useful in the winter because it’s going to be warm inside compared to the air outside and due to physics the air is going to go from warm to cold so it’s actually just going to expel outwards and clear the room naturally, even if it is a little cracked.
Wiles says she’d like to see more hotel companies focus on air quality, whether it’s making sure a window is open or investing in a CO2 monitor. In the meantime, more customers raising questions about ventilation in the same way we might ask if places are BYO or use free-range eggs on the menu could help raise awareness and ask for clean indoor air when we eat out. “I wish people would ask those questions,” Wiles says.
At our current setting, orange, customers in restaurants, cafes and bars are not required to wear masks. But although it’s not mandatory for customers, the government’s Covid-19 website says everyone is “encouraged to wear a face covering in indoor public places wherever practical”. And there are good reasons to follow this advice.
In an article on The Spinoff published last week, Rindelaub said: “I think people should wear masks whenever they are in these high-risk environments, whenever they can. I mean, obviously it won’t be possible all the time. But the longer you wear it, the better off you are, because you reduce the risk.
Wiles emphasizes the importance of wearing, if possible, a properly fitted respirator, such as a P2 or N95, which are more effective than surgical masks and cloth masks which have been ubiquitous for much of the pandemic. Wearing a good mask “is a relatively small thing that we can do,” she says. “At least while we’re at the top.”
So whether you’re heading to the checkout to pay, browsing the buffet selection, or heading to a cafe for a take-out cheese scone and coffee in the morning, putting on a mask for those few minutes could save you , you or someone else, to be sick for a week or more. Sounds like a good compromise IMHO.
Dinner at off-peak hours
Another tip worth heeding, according to Wiles, is to “go early in the service or later when it’s less crowded.” Fewer people in the room means less chance of someone having Covid-19 and less concentration of particles in the air from people breathing. There’s something delicious about breaking the food rules – so why not go for a late dinner like people tend to do in Spain, or eat it at 4pm like they apparently do in Norway and Finland.
If you’re heading out to eat somewhere in your own car or active transportation, you probably don’t have to worry too much about potential transmission of Covid-19. For other modes of transport, it’s a different story.
In a series of articles on RNZ last weekbuses, trains and ferries have been rated quite poorly for air quality, so it’s important to wear a respirator mask to reduce both the particles you breathe in and breathe out in these germ vessels.
Likewise, if you’re traveling by taxi (an even smaller germ vessel), simply wearing a breathing mask and rolling down the window to release those air particles will help protect you and the driver. I’ve perfected the art of rolling down the window while closing the door, and I think you can too.
I carry my CO2 monitor everywhere – it helps me make choices. The very high reading of 2819 was in an Uber with all the windows closed (I immediately opened them). The more heartwarming 685 was in a cab the same day the windows were left 3cm open. #ventilation pic.twitter.com/TREyUrHLKq
— Dr. Michelle Dickinson (@medickinson) July 12, 2022
Do a RAT beforehand
Thinking of booking a fancy meal to celebrate the end of seven days of isolation? Consider waiting a few days to be safe, says Wiles. “A quarter to half of people are contagious after the seventh day,” she says, so “wait at least a few days” before dining out. If you don’t, “It’s dangerous for everyone around you, staff and other diners.” Even if you are not at the end of a Covid-19 isolation period, it might be worth doing a RAT test as a precaution, especially since we now know that you can be re-infected much sooner than previously thought.
Be a good dinner
Patience is always a virtue in restaurants, but with staffing issues and the stress of working in a pandemic, even more so right now. Most hospitality workers I’ve spoken to recently have noticed a positive change in customer treatment, but it can’t hurt to keep that in mind. Say “thank you”, be understanding of wait times or mistakes, drink responsibly or, a more controversial suggestion, stack the plates at the end of a meal. Unless you believe in karma, being polite to hospitality workers probably won’t protect you or anyone else from Covid-19, but if the goal is to take care of each other, it is important to keep in mind.