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What you should know about indoor dining amid the delta variant

A sign notifies customers that masks are required while indoors at a restaurant in St. Louis. (Neeta Satam/Bloomberg)
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You might be thinking about making reservations at a restaurant this weekend, but before you smash the “confirm” button on your favorite app, you could be having second — or eighth — thoughts. News about the delta variant of the coronavirus, “breakthrough infections” among vaccinated people and changing guidelines on masking are adding levels of uncertainty that we once assumed were behind us.

As Americans again grapple with the question of whether they should dine out, public health experts and epidemiologists agree on one thing: There is no such thing as zero risk. There are only degrees of risk, no matter your vaccination status or the damage the delta variant has done to your community.

'The war has changed': Internal CDC document urges new messaging, warns delta infections likely more severe

We talked to scientists and industry experts about what diners should know about this new phase.

Saskia Popescu, infectious-disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, likes to frame the question as a risk assessment. She says you should look at three factors before deciding whether you should dine at a restaurant: your vaccination status, the level of coronavirus transmission in your community (as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Data Tracker) and your personal risk assessment (are you immunocompromised or do you share your home with someone who is vulnerable or can’t be vaccinated yet?).

Popescu, for example, resides in Phoenix, in Maricopa County, where the transmission rate is high, “which really sucks,” she said, “because it’s 110 degrees outside.” She doesn’t feel like dining under the summer sun where a customer can feel as fried as a bucket of chicken.

“I really am just not leaning into dining indoors right now,” Popescu said. “Being indoors is a high-risk activity when you’re dining because you’re eating and you’re drinking. You have no mask on. There’s a bunch of other people whose vaccine status you don’t really know and who are also unmasked. You’re there for prolonged periods of time. I look at all of those, and that’s how I make an informed decision. So it’s not black-and-white.”

But that is Popescu’s situation, based on her vaccinated status (vaxxed), her community and her personal level of risk tolerance. Everyone will have different factors to weigh.

Vaccination is being required

A growing number of restaurants have adopted policies requiring employees — and in some cases, customers — to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated. In a big shift, New York City this week announced that visitors to gyms and indoor dining establishments would have to be vaccinated, starting in September.

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Such rules might feel like another patch on the country’s crazy quilt of covid-19 rules for diners, but experts say they serve two purposes. They might make dining rooms safer, and it’s part of a larger movement to nudge vaccination holdouts into getting the shot.

“The more societal pressure we put on people to get vaccine the better,” said Jennifer Kolker, a professor at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “Of course, there are those who haven’t gotten it either because they can’t or they don’t have access, and those people deserve our help and compassion. But for the other two-thirds who just refuse — well, I’m tired of people who did the right thing being punished.”

The delta variant has become the dominant strain of coronavirus in the United States, resulting in a rise in infections and hospitalizations. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The best-case scenario

Based on interviews with several experts, the ideal dining situation would look something like this:

  • You are vaccinated. (The three major vaccines are highly effective against the worst effects of covid and critical illness, experts say.)
  • You are dining with others who are vaccinated, and none of them are showing signs of sickness.
  • You are eating either outside (the best situation) or in a restaurant that is well-ventilated, not packed with diners and located in a community that has a low transmission rate.
  • You wear a mask whenever talking to a server or moving about the restaurant.

“If the servers are wearing masks and if they’re vaccinated, you’re not going to have a lot of ping-ponging of the virus back and forth” inside the restaurant, said Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco.

“You’re basically making a cocoon of safety, but that doesn’t mean there is zero risk, just like when you wear a seat belt, you can still get into an accident,” he adds.

The worst-case scenario

  • You live in a community with a substantial or high level of coronavirus transmission, based on the CDC’s Data Tracker.
  • Your community has a low rate of fully vaccinated residents.
  • You are not vaccinated yourself or are dining with people who are not vaccinated.
  • You’re eating inside a restaurant where the owners have returned to 100 percent capacity and maskless diners and servers are packed together in a poorly ventilated space with no windows.
  • You have no idea the vaccination status of anyone else in the restaurant, including the employees.
  • You live with someone who is immunocompromised, elderly or unvaccinated.

“If you’re in an area that you’re at moderate [risk] in your county, but everywhere else is substantial or high, I’d say maybe that might be an indicator that things are potentially increasing and it might be a safer decision to move outside,” Popescu said.

The murky middle

The trouble for people eager to dine out is that things are rarely so black-and-white.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, public health officials have warned diners about the potential of restaurants to spread the virus. They’re enclosed spaces where people spend long periods of time without masks, potentially spreading droplets and aerosols into the environment, threatening other diners. A few studies have essentially reinforced these concerns, including a South Korean report that showed two diners were infected in a matter of minutes inside one restaurant.

As cases of the coronavirus surge across the United States, health officials and politicians discussed masking and potential restrictions on Aug. 1. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The restaurant industry, predictably, is offering reassurances. Larry Lynch, the senior vice president of certification and operations for the National Restaurant Association, notes that through the pandemic, no restaurant has been the site of a superspreader event the way other settings have. “Even when restaurants were taking a lot of hits, you didn’t see systemic outbreaks among places that followed our guidelines,” he said.

‘We can’t take another blow’: Some restaurants may not survive renewed mask mandates

The current situation, of course, is different from when the American economy started to reopen last year. Millions of Americans are vaccinated and ready to return to regularly scheduled activities. But the highly transmissible delta variant has cast doubt on a return to normal. Infection rates and hospitalizations have spiked, and not just among the unvaccinated.

“Your vaccination is an umbrella,” said Chin-Hong, the infectious-disease specialist at UCSF. “When it’s raining, it can shelter you, but when there is a big thunderstorm, you can’t always dodge all the rain.”

In other words, Chin-Hong said, vaccinated folks have to be mindful of the conditions when venturing out in public. Look for restaurants that require masks, mandate vaccinations for employees or maybe even require diners to show proof of vaccination. Check the level of coronavirus transmission in your county and refrain from indoor dining if the levels are high or substantial, especially if you have vulnerable people in your pod.

Even if you are vaccinated, new evidence has shown you could pick up the virus without knowing it and potentially transmit it to, say, your unvaccinated children at home.

But diners also play a role in creating a safe space. They should wear a mask when talking with servers and moving about the restaurant. They should avoid crowded spaces and stay at home when they show any signs of illness, even if they are vaccinated, experts say.

The NRA is continuing to advise restaurants to find ways to encourage employees to get vaccinated, but it has stopped short of calling for mandatory jabs. And it recommends that employees wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.

Restaurants across the country are imposing various protocols, depending on the rules governing their city or state. And many restaurant owners are going beyond what’s mandated. So Lynch advises that would-be diners check out a restaurant they’re thinking about visiting — even if they’ve recently dined there — to make sure they’re still comfortable with the setup. Check out the establishment’s website and social media, or give them a phone call.

Other things to consider

It’s important to remember that no matter where you are, dining out isn’t what it used to be. The delta variant has thrown another curveball at restaurants, which were already struggling to find their footing. Suddenly, they have to answer more questions: Should they require vaccines for their employees or for their customers? Can they handle an uptick in takeout while doing in-person service? Should they spread out their tables a bit more?

This comes as they face worker shortages and frequent glitches in supply chains that can have them scrambling to adjust the menu or stock supplies. And customers might be snippier than usual these days, too.

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All of which makes it harder to provide great service, said restaurant consultant Larry Reinstein. “It’s frustrating for diners and for restaurants right now,” he said. “We don’t have an adequate supply chain. We’re figuring we’re going to be shorthanded. For us to be able to deliver on a great customer experience is hard enough when the guests are happy.”

Larry Lynch of the National Restaurant Association said diners shouldn’t be afraid to talk to management if they see employees or other customers not complying with protocols. “It’s the same as if your steak wasn’t cooked right,” he said.

To minimize potential conflict, it’s best to know before you go: Do you need a reservation? Is there a time limit on tables? Has your favorite dish been nixed from the menu because an ingredient isn’t available? It’s smart to juice up your phone so you can scan the QR codes that have become common. And bring proof of your vaccination status if it’s required.

Reinstein’s overall advice? Keep your standards high — and your spirits, too. “Don’t go in not expecting a good experience,” he said. “But do go in rooting for one — and just be happy and kind.”