Is it safe to go to restaurants as COVID-19 omicron variant spreads? Here's how to assess the risks

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The year is different, but the story is the same: as the latest wave of the pandemic ripples through Iowa, the state’s bars, restaurants and other dining establishments are balancing caution with carrying on.

While everyone is working toward a common goal — keeping workers and customers safe and staying in business — measures taken to get there vary by location. Some, like Scenic Route Bakery owner Katy Nelson, continue to ask customers to wear a mask whenever they are not seated at a table.

Others, like the restaurants of Full Court Press including Buzzard Billy’s and El Bait Shop, remain more flexible with masks both for customers and staff. Full Court Press’ marketing manager Steevo Andrews says that while masks are always available, some team members — particularly bartenders — have a difficult time connecting with customers from behind the face cover.

It’s all in an effort to keep up with an ever-shifting guidance and customer feedback, Iowa Restaurant Association president Jessica Dunker said.

“Restaurants are using visible COVID steps to differentiate themselves,” Dunker said. “There are lots of consumers who are offended if you ask them to wear a mask… (other consumers) prefer to be places where it’s very visible where people (stand) on vaccination or everybody has a mask on.”

Iowans have to weigh the pros and cons and assess the risk of dining out for themselves, but here are answers to some common questions from health experts and restaurant industry experts alike.

Is it safe to eat at restaurants right now?

University of Iowa Hospitals officials have urged Iowans to take precautions since early January as hospitals continue to see surging numbers of patients. Getting vaccinated, avoiding crowds and wearing masks in indoor public places are all important to help reduce the strain on hospital staff, according to Suresh Gunasekaran, CEO of the University of Iowa Hospitals.

Eating at a restaurant requires the removal of a mask, increasing the likelihood that diners and restaurant staff will be exposed to COVID-19.

"Dining in right now as omicron is sweeping across the state is risky because in order to dine you must take off your mask," director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa's College of Public Health Dr. Christine Petersen said. "We all know that then puts you at risk for getting infected not just with COVID, but flu is also being widely spread right now."

But that doesn't mean it is unsafe to support your favorite restaurants.

"What we do know really well is this virus does not spread on surfaces, so getting takeout boxes from a restaurant is not a risk to you at all," Petersen said.

Dunker said that during the period of restaurant restrictions in early 2020, no health official was ever able to provide her with contact tracing data that led back to an Iowa restaurant. This could be in part because restaurants implemented stringent cleaning measures and regular staff testing in an effort to keep workers in a strained labor market.

"(COVID) is the last thing you need, particularly in the kitchen environment," Dunker said. "You're not going to have anybody back there risking infecting any of the staff."

Is it safe for parents of unvaccinated children to eat at restaurants right now?

Petersen said it's inadvisable for parents of young children to spend time in restaurants right now despite a lower risk of severe illness in children.

"If you've got a young kiddo who isn't vaccinated, although their relative risk of getting sick is low, we have seen multiple instances where kids can be the ones who bring an infection into a household and give it to those at a much higher risk," Petersen said.

More: Omicron surge leaves no segment of Iowa unscathed: Police, schools, restaurants deal with record wave of cases

What measures can customers take to make dining out safer?

There are some ways to lessen your chance of coming in contact with COVID-19 when you're out on the town.

Petersen says to try dining out during slower hours when group sizes are smaller rather than during peak hours. Look for seating away from areas where people will be walking by and where other diners are actively eating. If you can, avoid areas where you will have close contact with others, like at a restaurant bar.

Dunker suggests being informed upfront about your dining destination's COVID practices. Check the restaurant's website or social media pages or call in to see if restrictions have been updated or hours have shifted. This is more common as employers face short staffing with sick team members.

"We've really appreciated that consumers have chosen to be understanding about that through all of the pandemic," Dunker said. "The consumers of Iowa really have been phenomenal in supporting us and understanding that we are doing the best we can."

What are restaurants doing to make dining out safer?

This varies by restaurant, but Dunker says that almost every restaurant in the state has implemented one or more safety measures that they will likely never take away.

These measures range from spacing tables further apart to using mobile payment systems for less person-to-person interaction to enhanced sanitation efforts.

And for restaurant staff who do catch the virus, "the vast majority of restaurants are going to require a negative test," to return to work, Dunker said.

Does wearing a mask from door to table make a difference?

Restaurant staff are often trying very hard to remain masked during long shifts, and choosing to enter the establishment masked signals that you recognize their efforts to keep you safe.

"It's a recognition that we are not out of the woods," Petersen said.

Check with restaurants individually to see if their staff would prefer you mask up before eating.

Can restaurants in Iowa require masks? Can they require vaccinations?

While private businesses can enforce masking within their storefronts, they recognize that it's going to have an impact on business.

"A private business can require anything they'd like, but you would be hard-pressed to find many restaurants that are requiring that of customers," Dunker said.

Similarly, Dunker said, with such a diverse industry of age, demographic and philosophy, you're not going to see many employers putting up barriers to work.

More: 'We're in a critical moment' to slow omicron COVID spread, UI Hospitals leader tells Iowans

Is outdoor dining safer than indoor?

The benefit of dining outdoors is dilution of potentially infectious airborne particles or droplets, so if you have a choice to dine outside, Petersen said, it's the safer option.

This isn't always an option in the winter months in Iowa, but across the state restaurants like Barn Town Brewing in West Des Moines and Treehouse Pub & Eatery in Bettendorf offer igloo-style dining where your party is placed in a heated outdoor bubble. While dining in an igloo is probably safer than dining indoors, Petersen noted that your server still has to enter the space, effectively bursting the bubble of protection the igloo is meant to provide.

More: Al fresco without freezing: Get cozy on these 7 heated Des Moines metro restaurant and bar patios

Do Plexiglas dividers or tall booth walls help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Recent research that she has seen shows that Plexiglas doesn't do much because it's not a full seal, Petersen said.

"What they've found is it changes airflow but it doesn't make it so you don't get the airflow," Petersen said. In fact, it can even create a worse environment for the exchange of fresh outdoor air and indoor air by redirecting the natural airflow.

Elle Wignall covers dining for the Register. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @ElleWignallDMR.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Is it safe to eat in a restaurant as COVID omicron variant spreads?