COVID-19: Eating safely at restaurants and at home

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      Six months ago, we never would have imagined high-end restaurants doing takeout, servers wearing surgical masks, or having to wipe down all of the grocery-store and takeout packaging entering our homes. COVID-19 has introduced a mind-boggling new normal when it comes to eating safely, whether at one of your favourite eateries or at your kitchen table.

      The novel coronavirus isn’t transmitted through food itself, but expert opinion has been divided since the onset of the pandemic over several aspects related to food. Do we need to take a Lysol wipe to soup cans and pizza boxes, for instance, and should we soak produce in soapy water to reduce the risk of contracting the virus? In a restaurant setting, is it safe to touch the table, chairs, glassware, and cutlery?

      Much of the concern stemmed from research published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that the virus can survive on certain surfaces for varying lengths of time: up to 24 hours on cardboard, for example, and up to three days on plastic.

      The risk of virus transmission through infected surfaces has been exaggerated, according to Emanuel Goldman, professor of microbiology, biochemistry and molecular genetics at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, who is among the health professionals weighing in on this topic lately. In a recent commentary published in the Lancet, he said the data showing this kind of viral transfer have come from studies that have “little resemblance to real-life scenarios”.

      “In my opinion, the chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small, and only in instances where an infected person coughs or sneezes on the surface and someone else touches that surface soon after the cough or sneeze (within 1–2 h),” Goldman wrote. “I do not disagree with erring on the side of caution, but this can go to extremes not justified by the data. Although periodically disinfecting surfaces and use of gloves are reasonable precautions, especially in hospitals, I believe that fomites [inanimate surfaces that are normally likely to carry infection] that have not been in contact with an infected carrier for many hours do not pose a measurable risk of transmission in non-hospital settings.”

      The focus on wiping down countertops, milk jugs, and to-go containers may turn people’s attention away from more effective measures of minimizing transmission. Goldman said. “It distracts and takes people away from what really protects you against this virus, and that’s the masks,” he told “That’s where the emphasis has to be. That’s what’s going to save us.”

      Things to consider when it comes to dining out during a pandemic

      Masks and/or face shields have rightly become commonplace in many restaurants and food businesses, though practices vary from place to place. If you’re feeling apprehensive about dining out, visit the restaurant’s website or call directly to go over their COVID-19 protocols—ideally those that go above and beyond the provincial public-health guidelines.

      Whether online or by phone, you should be able to easily discover all the steps a dining establishment is taking to help keep its employees and guests safe.

      Are floor and kitchen staff wearing masks? Is hand sanitizer available upon entry or once you’re seated? (Some restaurants now put individual packets as part of the place settings.) How often are high-touch surfaces and washrooms being sanitized? Are there screens between tables? And are tables actually two metres apart? Are digital menus available so you don’t have to handle a paper version, or are the latter being recycled after each use? Are temperature checks being conducted among staff and guests before they enter? It may seem strange the first time you extend your wrist to get this measurement, but it’s quick, painless, and for the greater good. Is the restaurant taking down a name and number for at least one person in your party for contact tracing if necessary? Do they accept cash (many don’t)? Sitting outside is a better option than in, with the outdoors making it harder for the virus to spread.

      These are all things to take into account, and everyone’s comfort level is different. There’s no right or wrong, and you need to consider whether you’ll be able to relax amid the many health measures around you that are stark reminders of the times. 

      Guests have their own part to play when it comes to dining out safely: stay home if you’re sick; consider wearing a mask until you’re seated; respect physical-distancing rules; and wash or sanitize your hands before eating.

      If you didn’t finish what’s on your plate and want to take it home, you can ask to pack it up yourself.

      Be patient. And whatever you do, don’t lick your fingers. But you didn’t do that before the pandemic, did you?