When Gov. Greg Abbott allowed restaurants to open back up in Texas in late April during the coronavirus pandemic, Dallas restaurateur Janice Provost’s reaction was memorable: “Oh my God, what?”
Health care experts have since said that the reopening in North Texas felt rushed. And after COVID-19 cases in Texas spiked in June, Abbott reversed some of his previous decisions by placing tighter restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Dr. Erin Carlson, associate clinical professor and director of graduate public health programs at UT-Arlington’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation, says consumers are rightly confused. Are restaurants safe?
“We weren’t supposed to reopen until we peaked, then came down in our cases — until we had seen a steady decline for two weeks,” Carlson says. “We did not do that before reopening.”
Experiences vary wildly in North Texas, too: Consumers in some areas of Dallas-Fort worth are behaving as if the pandemic is long gone, while others are afraid to go anywhere, especially after reading reports of restaurant workers getting sick.
“None of us knew anything about this virus until we’re in the moment and continuing to study and learn about it,” Carlson says. “This puts restaurants in a particularly precarious place. They are so responsible for health and safety, and yet we don’t have knowledge to give them about how best to protect health and safety.”
We asked three doctors for their advice on dining in and ordering takeout from restaurants in D-FW.
Should we be eating inside restaurants?
All three doctors we interviewed said consumers should understand the risks of dining inside restaurants. Most advise against it right now.
Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, was the most matter-of-fact: “We’re still in the red zone,” he says, referring to a color-coded chart that measures COVID-19 risk. “Stay home, stay safe.”
Dr. Catherine Troisi, infectious disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health, says she hasn’t dined inside a restaurant during the pandemic because she’s over 65 years old and chooses to be cautious.
“Eating in a restaurant is not essential,” she says, suggesting that the risks outweigh the benefits.
The answer is “it depends” for Carlson. Anyone who is 65 or older or has heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or is obese should avoid restaurants, she says. Others should take a calculated approach: “Just because you can eat in a restaurant doesn’t mean you should,” she says.
Carlson wrote a set of guidelines on how consumers can eat in restaurants, if they choose to — and it’s a 17-bullet-point tip sheet. Suggestions include bringing wipes to sanitize salt and pepper shakers and silverware; using a straw instead of putting your mouth on a glass; eating quickly; and avoiding the restroom.
“It depends on your personal tolerance for risk and your underlying health conditions,” Carlson says. “There is a risk.”
Is takeout OK?
The three doctors said ordering takeout does not pose a significant health risk. Epidemiologists believe the virus is most often spread when respiratory droplets are transferred between people who are within 6 feet of one another for at least 15 minutes, Huang says.
It’s not an exact science: “You could be close to someone for less than 15 minutes and they sneezed on you,” Huang says.
Most people picking up to-go food from a restaurant will spend less than 15 minutes inside. Doctors encourage people to wear a mask; those visiting businesses in Dallas and Tarrant counties are required to.
Can the coronavirus be transmitted on food or food packaging?
While doctors have said for months that the coronavirus is not transmitted through food and can’t survive on food packaging, conflicting information has been shared about whether consumers should wipe down grocery bags and to-go containers.
Troisi believes Texans can stop sanitizing food containers.
“I would not worry at all about the food,” she says. “And I don’t worry about the packaging. I do not wipe it down. I think there are so many other things to worry about.”
She does note that some consumers might feel better by sanitizing their food containers, and that’s fine. “We do a lot of things in life that make us feel safer that really aren’t,” she says. “I always use TSA [Transportation Security Administration] as an example: A lot of it is the perception of what makes you feel better. And as long as it’s not harming anybody, why not?”
If you choose to eat in a restaurant, whom should you dine with?
The best people to spend time with outside of the home are those who are already part of your household, Troisi says.
But: “You have to have some agreement that everybody is following the same precautions,” she says. She also studies sexually transmitted infections and makes this analogy: “If you’re having sex, you might think your partner is only having sex with you, but you don’t really know. So you’re really trusting people in your pod that they have not been taking risks that you’re not comfortable with.”
Now’s a good time to be honest with your family members, Troisi says.
How important are masks in restaurants?
Because consumers have to remove their masks to eat or drink, some have wondered whether wearing one is useful. Carlson says “masks in general will help tremendously” — and can reduce the transmission of COVID-19 by more than 80%. She cites a study commissioned by the World Health Organization.
She recommends that customers wear a mask into a restaurant and to the restroom, if they choose to use it. They can remove the mask when they begin eating.
Removing the mask comes with a secondary risk. “What do we do while we’re eating? We talk a lot,” Carlson says. “Talking is a means of transmitting COVID.” That’s another reason why epidemiologists are wary of inside dining.
Carlson suggests customers watch carefully to see if restaurant workers are wearing masks. “That’s a signal, a flag, about how seriously the restaurant is taking this,” she says.
The county can fine restaurants $500 per violation, and owners say they are being put in a ‘tough situation.’
Should restaurants tell consumers if an employee gets COVID-19?
Yes. All three doctors agreed that telling customers could help prevent further spread of the infection. The problem is, servers may not know who was in the restaurant when the employee might have been contagious. Posting the information to a social media site might be the best way to reach a wide audience, Troisi says.
And what would happen if you were at the restaurant at the same time as an infected person? You should get tested, they say. Anyone exposed to an infected person should self-quarantine for 14 days, Troisi says.
Huang mentioned that the greatest concern for transmission would be if an employee was not wearing a mask while unknowingly infected with COVID-19.
Positive COVID-19 tests among Dallas restaurant workers pose dilemma: Should restaurateurs be honest?
One restaurateur calls it a “lose-lose situation”: Tell the public about a COVID-19 case, risk backlash. Don’t tell the public, risk getting found out.
Is it safe to visit a restaurant after an employee tested positive for COVID-19?
Yes. “It shouldn’t shut down a restaurant indefinitely,” Carlson says. The restaurant should follow CDC guidelines and Texas Restaurant Association suggestions, which include sanitizing the restaurant and telling the infected person to quarantine. Transmission of COVID-19 will happen, however — and restaurants are suffering from an increased number of cases in D-FW.
“If we see repeated instances of cases at any given business, obviously that should be a red flag to a customer,” Carlson says. “[But] if I heard a restaurant had a case of COVID and it were a restaurant I really liked, I would continue getting takeout from them.”
Carlson goes on to say that restaurants whose employees develop COVID-19 shouldn’t be vilified.
“It’s a reflection of what’s happening in our larger community with regard to increased transmission,” she says. “They’re not at home like the rest of us right now. They are inherently exposed to so many diseases and opportunities for transmission.”
Dallas restaurants like Bob’s Steak temporarily close, saying ‘employees are nervous’ about coronavirus spike
As coronavirus cases continue to surge in Dallas County, some restaurateurs are choosing to preemptively close their restaurants, fearing staffers could get infected if they don’t temporarily shut down.
What else can consumers do to protect themselves and others at restaurants?
Wash your hands, Huang says. Don’t touch your face. Wear a mask.
“It’s all of it,” he says. “You can’t forget all of the things.”