The Coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic by World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2020, after its first few cases were reported in 2019. The Covid 19 pandemic had brought the economy of several hard-hit nations to a standstill. Eventually after the first few initial months, countries have allowed the opening up of country-wide lockdowns that were imposed in March. Many countries like the U.S. have resumed back to operating local businesses. Even with norms of maintaining social distancing, almost every eatery, restaurant, hotel and other diners have been allowed to serve the local people. Although it has been officially allowed, is eating out really safe?
A recent survey conducted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports how going out to eat during the coronavirus pandemic is highly risky as compared to other outdoor activities. The report's findings include "people going to locations that offer onsite eating (indoor dining / outdoor dining) and drinking options were associated with Covid 19 positive results. Adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results."
Of the 314 people tested at 11 U.S. health care facilities, about half tested positive and half negative. The tests were at healthcare facilities in California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah and Washington. It was observed in the study, that 18 years and above adults who tested positive were more likely to have eaten out at a restaurant or bars.
Data was collected including demographic characteristics, information on underlying chronic medical conditions, symptoms, convalescence (self rated physical and mental health), close contact (within 6 feet for ≥15 minutes) with a person with known COVID-19, workplace exposures, mask wearing behaviour, and community activities within 14 days before symptom onset. Participants were asked about their adherence to safety guidelines and precautions formulated by health officials for safeguarding public health such as wearing a face coverings or masks, physical distancing and possible community exposure activities : gatherings with less or more than 10 persons in a home; shopping; dining at a restaurant; interacting in indoor spaces or outdoor spaces like salon, gym, bars, coffee shops, church or other religious gathering spaces; what kind of public transportation used) on a five point Likert-type scale ranging from "never" to "more than once per day" or "always" for the in depth analysis.
Both, participants who tested positive and those who tested negative gave similar answers for the other related factors with an exception of visiting restaurants. The data show people who tested positive were significantly more likely to eat at restaurants in "any area designated by the restaurant, including indoor, patio, and outdoor seating."
"Eating and drinking on-site at locations that offer such options might be important risk factors associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection," the CDC said in another report. "Efforts to reduce possible exposures where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, such as when eating and drinking, should be considered to protect customers, employees, and communities." It has been noted that the highest risk of contraction is while onsite dining with both indoor as well as outdoor seating. Seating capacity and arrangement must be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
It is important to remember the basics of how SARS-CoV-2 can spread: through large respiratory droplets containing viral particles, through contaminated inanimate objects known as 'fomites', and, as some studies suggest, through airborne particles, according to Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University and co-author of the book Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. To avoid intake of these infectious droplets , it is integral to wear a face mask to protect not only the individual wearing it but also the fellow beings who are in the respective environment. It is important to frequently wash hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer to kill any germs on the body. Avoiding close contact with other citizens is the new social norm, essential to be followed.
The safety precautions issued to control the Covid 19 transmission rate are to be strictly followed by all diners and restaurants that are offering their services. The restaurant staff is supposed to follow the food safety protocol by assigning safely distanced tables to customers. Servers should be wearing masks at all times and the restaurant should have a process to ensure people are not congregating too closely while waiting for a table, says Dr. Susan Casey Bleasdale, an infectious disease expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As indoor spaces have a higher risk of virus transmission due to the close proximity and limited ventilation, restaurants must provide outdoor seating as a preferred option to allow free flow of air due to the good ventilation. Digital or disposable menus and throwaway utensils like plates, cups, spoons, etc, lower the threat of passing along the infectious disease through commonly touched items. Touchless payment options like credit cards, debit cards, net banking, UPI, digital wallets and others are being employed to avoid frequent contact with cash among several people. The safest option to eat outside food would be to have the takeout delivered. Even so, the food packaging must be quickly and correctly disposed to avoid contracting any viral particles from the packaging itself.
Although there are promising trials in progress, the head of the World Health Organization's health emergencies program believes that a viable Covid 19 vaccine is so far off that the novel coronavirus may just become a consistent part of our futures. Several trials in their final phases are expected to be able to provide a vaccine by December this year or in the beginning of 2021. But without any certain cure, Covid 19 remains an eminent risk to the global population.
Much about the Coronavirus and its differing effects on various people remains unknown even as multiple case studies and research is being carried out by renowned institutions and scientists all over the world. Coupled with its continued community spread and testing that still isn't robust enough to effectively identify and isolate everyone who may be infected in the due time frame, it is a premature decision to declare reopening of local businesses and lifting the restrictions on the general public. "I am an eating enthusiast who loves going out to eat with my friends and family, and as much as I'm eager for restaurants to reopen. We just don't know enough about transmission to really estimate the risk of infection," says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and associate research scientist at Columbia University.
Ultimately, it is crucial for all to remember that risk is shared. It's not just one person at risk of infection, but all those ones in contact with the infected person. An entire community can be potentially compromised even with one person being infected or just a carrier of the virus if not already infected. "I hope that, as a country, we will continue to think about our neighbours, our community members, and those of us who are at higher risk," says Michael Knight, assistant professor of medicine and the patient safety officer at the George Washington University. Limiting non essential trips even if restrictions in respective countries are being lifted and at the very least, taking note of the following safety protocol to mitigate risk as much as possible is everybody's responsibility while such a hazardous pandemic prevails.