This week Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the return of indoor dining in New York City, meaning that come September 30th, New Yorkers can dine inside of a restaurant for the first time since March. While New York's coronavirus indicators have been consistently low for over a month, we are still very much in this pandemic and can see a second wave at any time. Even with low case numbers, and 25% reduced capacity, is it safe to return to an indoor space, surrounded by unmasked strangers?
At a press conference this week, the city's Department of Health commissioner Dave Chokshi said, "We are able to take these gradual steps" because of the low case numbers, but stopped short of answering if indoor dining was safe. On Thursday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not directly answer whether or not he would dine indoors.
I asked epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Morse at Columbia University for his thoughts on indoor dining, and he told me that he is "deeply conflicted" about returning to a restaurant himself.
"Dining out should be an enjoyable experience, and it’s heartbreaking to see so many of our local attractions – including neighborhood restaurants – closing or on the verge of going under. We’ve seen so many empty storefronts. On the other hand, I haven’t personally mustered the courage for indoor dining."
Mayor de Blasio has said that if positivity rates hit 2%, indoor dining will be reassessed and potentially shut down again. To help monitor outbreaks, in order to dine indoors at least one patron in a group will need to leave their contact information for the city's Test & Trace Corps.
"In any situation, we’re reducing the risk," Morse says, adding, "There are few, if any, guarantees in life. The current ceasefire with the virus can change at any time, and should remind us not to be complacent, but we’re probably better off than some other places that have more virus currently circulating." However, he adds, this is all inferred from "the very limited data we have, which makes decision making more like a game of chance than like a rational process."
Below, more thoughts from Morse on indoor dining to help you make a more educated decision, and if you decide to dine out, please remember to tip well.
For those who do want to dine indoors...
For those who do want to dine indoors, where allowed, all the risk reduction measures that have been discussed before are applicable. With masks off, we have to rely on the other precautions, especially social (or physical) distancing, good hand hygiene and "respiratory etiquette."
Distancing almost always means reduced occupancy to allow sufficient room between tables. Having that much space between tables may be a novelty for many New York restaurant patrons, so there’s something to be said for the experience.
Indoors, good ventilation also becomes essential, with as much air movement as possible (open windows, fans, or good A/C). My general rule is as much ventilation as feasible, although there will always be hard choices. For HVAC (building air systems), there are a number of recommendations from ASHRAE, the Association of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, including high efficiency filters in the system, and fairly frequent air air exchange in the room (for offices, they recommend at least 4 replacements of the room air per hour, but for multi-occupancy spaces, like restaurants, that would be higher). All of these do their part to reduce risk.
Think of the waitstaff...
The staff are also at risk, of course, as they will encounter many patrons in the course of their shift. By now, as a result of our outdoor dining, staff has become pretty well practiced in the precautions: masks (face coverings), keeping some distance (hard in a service business where the personal interaction is an integral part of the experience), keeping their hands clean, and the logistics of keeping service items (utensils, dishes) and surfaces safe.
Consider what we've seen in other countries...
There have been cases of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 caught in restaurants, including Sweden and the UK, although it’s not always possible to say how carefully precautions were observed, and the much riskier bar or pub areas can’t always be differentiated. There are also the anecdotes, which are not data but get published for their inherent interest. One oft cited case involved a restaurant in Germany, where a diner leaned over to a neighboring table to ask to borrow the salt shaker. That was claimed sufficient to allow the borrower to get not only the salt shaker but also the infection from his neighbors. Probably very rare, but reminds us to keep our guard up (which I think, sadly, takes much of the fun out of eating out).
What about the bathrooms?
Restrooms are another issue. Good place to wear a mask, and carefully observe all the hygienic precaution.