- If you've received your vaccine (or vaccines), you might be eager to return to normal social activities like regularly dining indoors at restaurants.
- But experts say it may still not be safe to eat indoors without other safety precautions.
- Coronavirus variants can increase your risk of developing COVID-19.
To dine indoors or not? That's the question on the minds of tens of millions of consumers.
If you've received your vaccine (or vaccines), you might be eager to return to normal social activities like regularly dining indoors at restaurants.
But should you? We talked to experts about why it's still too early to eat indoors without extra precautions.
What experts say
Experts say if you want to dine out at a restaurant, you should do so cautiously, because there are no definitive answers and several unanswered questions about the safety of eating indoors.
And the rise of coronavirus variants could increase your risk of contracting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 — even if you're vaccinated.
It’s true that access to the vaccines has expanded exponentially in recent months, with over 14 percent of the U.S. population vaccinated against COVID-19.
But we're nowhere close to herd immunity, which would be about 70–90 percent of people vaccinated.
“While the rollout of vaccines is certainly an exciting development and a beacon of hope for many, the reality is that we still have a long way to go and a lot to learn,” said Dr. Neil Brown, an emergency medicine physician and chief diagnosis officer of K Health, a medical app that helps provide about 4 million patients with in-home primary care.
Few industries were as hard hit as the restaurant business during the pandemic. In many states, restaurants were the first businesses to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic.
And in 2020, restaurant and food service industry sales fell by $240 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Industry 2021 report.
But experts say we still need to be cautious when reopening or we could see another surge.
Many restaurants in large swaths of the country still operate with limited hours and indoor dining availability.
But with more vaccinations, many consumers are eager for a full reopening of public establishments, including restaurants and bars.
In Florida this week, Miami Beach officials declared a state of emergency after large crowds materialized to celebrate spring break.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is a very bright spot, but it’s still a very long tunnel,” said Dr. William Li, a physician and vascular biologist who has researched the COVID-19 virus extensively.
“We’re still a pretty good distance away. Even though schools, restaurants, and bars and gyms are opening, we still need to stay in the gear of caution so we don’t lose the momentum we’ve gained,” Li said.
“This is where the race to get people vaccinated” and a desire to open things up clash, added Li.
Variants could cause problems
Experts say there are still several unknowns.
For example, although a couple of the vaccines have an efficacy rate that hovers around 95 percent against the original strain of the virus, the efficacy against the new strains is likely much less.
“Also, there is still insufficient evidence to know if vaccinated people can still carry and spread the virus,” said Dr. Chris Thompson, an associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland.
He points out that the vaccinations aren't completely bulletproof.
Current data suggest that it significantly decreases the risk of symptomatic infection, but “we do not know enough yet about how well it prevents transmission,” he added.
“Diners should be cautious and restaurant employees, due to their high levels of exposure, should be vigilant about correct mask wearing, handwashing, and staying home if ill,” he said. “Having many unmasked people in one small area increases the risk for everyone there.”
“Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you could still cause harm to [people] because you might be a carrier,” Li said. “Outdoor dining is still the safest and most preferable option and when dining outdoors stay distant from others.”
“Diners should also wear masks,” Li added. “I wouldn’t go out every single night. It’s not yet safe. You can’t throw caution to the wind. It is safe to dine with others who are fully vaccinated and if there are no other vulnerable people.”