Is it safe to go to restaurants as COVID-19 omicron variant spreads? How to assess risks

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In Arizona, in accordance with state regulations, some restaurants have been operating at full capacity with a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy since Gov. Doug Ducey lifted restrictions in early March 2021. However, the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading throughout the state, with experts predicting a new spike in cases in January.

Some restaurants and bars are ramping up safety measures. Some are even requiring proof of vaccination to dine indoors. But there isn't a consistent standard across the board, which leaves many diners wondering if it's safe to go to a restaurant.

Here's what experts are saying about dining out during the spread of the delta and omicron variants.

Omicron variant: Questions and answers on what Arizonans need to know

Is it safe to eat at restaurants right now?

When deciding whether or not to eat at a restaurant, many factors determine the risk.

High levels of community spread, a category that currently engulfs the entire state of Arizona, puts everyone at some risk, though unvaccinated people not wearing a mask will face the most serious danger.

"They have no protection against the virus," says Dr. Farshad Fani Marvasti, an associate professor and director of public health, prevention and health promotion at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.

Dr. Charles Gerba, who holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and is a professor of virology, immunology and public health at the University of Arizona, agrees.

"You probably should be vaccinated right now if you're going to a restaurant," he says.

Vaccines have proven highly effective against severe outcomes from COVID-19, including hospitalization and death; however, breakthrough infections, where vaccinated people get COVID-19, are possible.

Vaccinated people who get COVID-19 may have mild or no symptoms. But they can suffer from what's known as long COVID-19, Marvasti says, when people develop long-term symptoms from the disease.

A third dose of the vaccine, known as a booster, helps protect against omicron, doctors say. Those without the booster are more susceptible.

“Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron,” White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a White House COVID update on Dec. 15. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster.”

When it comes to omicron, the two-dose defense against the disease drops to 33%, Fauci explained, adding that having a booster raises the level of protection back up to 75%.

Is it safe for parents with unvaccinated children to dine at restaurants?

Children under 5 years old can not yet receive a dose of the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable to the virus. So, even if grandparents want to see their new grandchild at brunch, it's safer not to bring children, Gerba says.

"I wouldn't take a young kid if they hadn't been eligible for the vaccine," he said. "They're going to get the omicron, it is just spreading so rapidly. I mean, it looks like it's very mild infection in young people. But why take a chance?"

Another thing to consider is who you come in close contact with. So even if parents leave children at home, those who go out to eat could potentially bring it home to their unvaccinated kids.

COVID-19 and kids: 1 in 6 COVID-19 infections in Maricopa County involves a child

The risk posed to other family members is something else to think about.

Lori Hashimoto owns Hana Japanese Eatery in uptown Phoenix. She explained that she lives with a family member who has survived cancer three times.

"I don't want to even bring the flu home," she says. Her co-workers and employees also have at-risk family members and young children to think about, she says.

"Plus the majority of my Sunday business is families," Hashimoto says. "We want to be as careful as possible."

Does it matter who you dine out with?

The people who you choose to dine out with also impact your risk level, Gerba says.

If you dine out with close family or roommates, people that live in your household, the risk is lower. The next level of risk includes friends or family who live within the same community.

Dining out in a large group with six or more people, especially if they have traveled from other areas of the country, poses a much higher risk, Gerba says.

"You know, if you're going to Atlanta, Georgia, meeting with people you haven't seen for a year, you're taking an additional risk," Gerba says.

Is outdoor dining safer than indoor dining?

The rooftop dining area at Belly, a restaurant at the intersection of Seventh Street and Camelback Road in Phoenix that opened during the pandemic as takeout only and has since phased into dine-in.
The rooftop dining area at Belly, a restaurant at the intersection of Seventh Street and Camelback Road in Phoenix that opened during the pandemic as takeout only and has since phased into dine-in.

For a few months of the pandemic, takeout was the only way restaurants could serve customers. One silver lining of that experience is that most restaurants around the state are now better equipped to serve food to-go.

Picking up food while wearing a mask or having it delivered to your door still remain the safest ways to enjoy a meal that wasn't cooked at home. The CDC describes drive-through, delivery, takeout, and curbside pick-up options as the lowest risk way to dine out.

At the other end of the spectrum, the CDC describes dining options with indoor seating, seating capacity that has not been reduced and tables that are not spaced at least six feet apart as presenting the highest potential risk.

As omicron spreads, returning to some of the safety measures put in place earlier in the pandemic can help curb the spread. The CDC continues to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors and on Dec. 21, Pima County reinstated its indoor mask mandate.

At restaurants, it's impossible to wear a mask while eating, so trying to maintain a minimum of six feet of space between yourself and others becomes even more important.

When removing a mask to eat, those sitting outdoors are much safer, Marvasti says.

Throughout the pandemic, and with grants from Ducey's office, many restaurants added patios or expanded outdoor seating.

You can't eat wearing a mask, but are they still helpful?

Once seated, customers at restaurants have to remove their masks to eat. But is it helpful to wear a mask from the entrance to the table?

Gerba says yes. At the front of a restaurant, where there may be a line of people waiting for a table and lots of people entering and exiting, customers often come into close contact with people outside their bubble.

Once seated, tables are often spread apart and the people in close proximity are your family or friends. So Gerba recommends continuing to wear a mask when entering a restaurant or moving around.

"So, the guidance really should be, eat outside if you can, try not to be in a large group and try to be at an appropriate distance," Gerba says.

Do Plexiglas dividers help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Throughout the pandemic, restaurants and bars spent thousands of dollars on installing ventilation and filtration systems that clean and circulate the air, adding Plexiglas dividers between booths, transforming menus into scannable QR codes and adding lines of tape to indicate where people should wait.

More: COVID-19 precautions at Arizona restaurants vary. Here are 5 tips for picking where to eat

But how helpful were these measures?

"Ventilation systems are definitely helpful," Marvasti says, but "dividers really don’t do anything."

He explained that the virus won't stop because there's a square of plastic to go around.

Before visiting a restaurant, customers can call or check social media to see what safety measures the business has put in place, from having a fully vaccinated staff to requiring servers or diners to wear masks.

Can restaurants require proof of vaccination?

One way some restaurant owners have chosen to try to protect their customers and staff is by requiring customers to show proof of vaccination.

Many of these restaurants have faced backlash, even drawing protesters picketing outside. However, legally, it is within a restaurant owner's rights to ask about vaccination status. As private businesses, owners can legally refuse entry to unvaccinated people.

Vaccination status in Arizona: Yes, restaurant workers can ask if you're vaccinated.

For those who are vaccinated, visiting a restaurant where everyone else is vaccinated as well can offer some peace of mind. It can also be less risky, Marvasti says.

"If everyone at the restaurant is vaccinated, you reduce the chances of that restaurant being the source of an infection that leads to a hospitalization and death," he says.

However, vaccinated people can still spread the disease between one another and bring it home to others, so dining out, even with proof of vaccination, is not entirely free of risk.

Can restaurants require masks?

Yes, restaurants can require customers to wear masks. Similar to the legalities surrounding vaccination status, restaurants are private businesses and make the rules for those entering their space. (Remember "no shoes, no shirt, no service"?)

As omicron spreads, more small businesses throughout the Valley are returning to mask requirements.

At Hana, Hashimoto provides disposable masks for anyone who forgets. Making sure her customers are safe, even if they are not all happy with the requirements, is her main focus.

"I've taken very measurable, effective steps," she says. "And the debate ends at the door."

Reach the reporter at Follow her on Twitter at @tirionmorris, on Facebook at Tirion Rose and on Instagram at tirionrose.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Is it safe to dine out as COVID-19 omicron spreads? Experts explain