A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 may to assemble safely inside without wearing face masks. As vaccination rates rise across the country, many restaurants are waive mask requirements and social distancing measures, although few require proof of vaccination.
This leaves many of us wondering how to dine safely. And if you are absolutely determined to eat in a restaurant, where is the safest place to sit? Is a seat near the window considerably safer than a seat at the back of the building? What if you have been vaccinated, does it matter?
The answers are complex. Scientists are still learning how well the vaccine keeps you from spreading COVID-19 to others, and new viral variants are circulating. Not to mention that restaurants often have complicated ventilation systems that can make every dining room different.
“Where you need to be careful is if the air is circulating and continues to recirculate it could carry the virus from one table to another” Pierre Gulick, associate professor of medicine at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, told HuffPost. “You should be careful with these situations, especially if you have not been vaccinated or if you are immunocompromised, where you should always take all the precautions that existed even before the vaccine.”
Don’t know what a red flag would look like? Below, the experts help you know what to look for.
Tables with access to outside air are the safest places to sit
Ventilation is a major factor in the transmission of COVID-19. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even just talks, aerosols float in the air, where they can linger and possibly infect someone else. Good airflow can dilute and remove these particles.
Thus, alfresco dining remains the safest option. But if you eat inside, the best place to sit is near an open door or window, Tista Gosh, epidemiologist at Great Rounds Health, mentionned.
âIf the door or window is open and letting in fresh air, that would be a good place to sit,â Ghosh said. “The fresh air dilutes the virus particles.”
Many restaurants have struggled to improve ventilation during the pandemic, but overhauling all of their systems is expensive and impractical for most, said Corby Kummer, Executive Director of the Food and Society program at the Aspen Institute, which recently worked with the restaurant industry to develop indoor dining safety standards and guidelines.
It is recommended to provide as much fresh air as possible in the room. ventilation guidelines. Restaurants are also encouraged to add portable air purification systems and HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) to HVAC systems.
Look around for windows and open doors before choosing a table and ask about how the restaurant handles ventilation, Kummer suggested. Some ventilation measures are not visible to the guests.
âYou can see the distance between the tables and you can see the open windows,â Kummer said. But also consider this: “Did they have their ventilation cleaned?” Are there portable air purifiers?
Watch out for air conditioning vents
Air conditioning can play a role in the transmission of the virus. In one CDC study published in July 2020 on a COVID-19 outbreak at a restaurant in China, an infected person transmitted the virus to people sitting several meters away, possibly because they were sitting near an air conditioner intake vent.
âThis example shows the importance of ventilation, especially in a restaurant, where you can’t wear masks while eating,â Ghosh said.
Kummer advised avoiding sitting near air vents, which are often located on the wall or ceiling above tables. A socket, or return vent, sucks in air and returns it to the HVAC system. An outlet vent, or supply vent, blows air out and recirculates air into the room.
âIt’s OK to be near a vent, just make sure it’s a flow, not an intake vent,â Kummer said. If you are not sure, ask before you sit down.
Depending on the restaurant, sitting by the kitchen can be a safe place. Kitchens tend to have better ventilation, as building codes often require them to have heavy-duty exhaust systems that vent the air upward, Kummer said.
Avoid crowded areas and the bar
The kitchen may be a well ventilated place, but it is also a very busy area. Gulick said it’s safer to sit in a secluded place where people don’t go, go or congregate, especially if they’re not wearing masks. It is his personal preference when he dines out, even if he is fully vaccinated.
âI sit where I’m not in the main zone,â Gulick said. âI’m trying to get into a booth that’s in a corner somewhere and I’ll be wearing my mask until I get some food. And then when I have the food, I’ll take it out and eat.
Sitting at the bar is not a good option, Kummer said. âPeople are very close to each other,â he explained. âYou still want to have access to your drink. The general idea is intimacy and closeness with others.
Should you be wondering where to sit if you are vaccinated?
With the lifting of mask warrants and capacity requirements, Kummer said this complicates the situation and unvaccinated diners can put other people at risk, including restaurant workers.
“I myself am more concerned with the transmission of workers from restaurant to restaurant and restaurant to restaurant than by a worker of mine,” he added.
People vaccinated are less likely to become seriously ill, be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, according to the CDC. Early research shows that vaccines could prevent people with no symptoms from spreading the virus to others.
But an immunocompromised person could still carry the virus because their antibody levels could be lower, Gulick said. And there are still some unknowns, such as how long the vaccine’s immunity will last and whether a booster will be needed.
Relaxing mask restrictions was the CDC’s way of encouraging people to get vaccinated, Ghosh said. She urged anyone, vaccinated or not, planning to dine indoors to pay attention to vaccination rates in their community and local health department guidelines regarding mask wearing and restaurant capacity.
Weigh your own risks before going out and don’t let your guard down, Gulick added. Be careful of where you sit when dining inside, and follow restaurant safety rules for seating and wearing masks.
âI know everyone is dying to come out and be back to normal,â Gulick said. âIt’s what everyone wants. We want to do the right thing, but everyone has to be careful about it so that they don’t take two steps forward and then back down.