The CDC Says If You See This at a Restaurant, Don't Go Inside

Lauren Gray
·4 min read

The lure of indoor dining has been hard to resist over the last year, and now that restrictions are being lifted across the country, you may have plans to head straight for your favorite eatery. But just because things are loosening up, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to reinstate your regular dining habits. According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranking certain everyday activities by COVID risk level, ordering takeout is still considered safest and eating outdoors at a socially distanced table is a close second. Indoor dining, on the other hand, can pose major health hazards—especially when the conditions are suboptimal.

In fact, the health authority warns that certain establishments should be avoided at all costs amid the COVID pandemic. They advise looking out for a small handful of red flags, which you'll most likely be able to spot before you walk through the door. Read on to find out what to look out for, and for more on everyday activities during the pandemic, check out If Your Grocery Store Doesn't Have This, Don't Go Inside, CDC Says.

If you see these red flags, turn right around.

When it comes to eating out, there’s a small handful of warning signs that should have you heading for the hills, says the CDC. "Eating inside restaurants that are poorly ventilated, where social distancing is not possible, servers and staff do not wear masks, and diners do not wear masks when not actively eating or drinking” is still a high-risk activity. Their advice? Don’t go inside.

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Buffets are also out.

The CDC also warns against visiting any restaurant with self-service features or a buffet. Because these “require extensive touching of surfaces,” making contamination far more likely.

This should come as no surprise, given that buffets have long been known to spread bacteria and viruses with ease. In fact, one black light experiment designed to simulate the spread of germs in this type of setting revealed just how swiftly COVID can travel under these conditions—in just 30 minutes, all participants involved in the research had germs on their utensils, food, hands, clothes, and faces.

And for more COVID tips from the CDC, check out The CDC Says You Should Immediately Do This Once You've Been Vaccinated.

And so are restaurants without capacity limits.

One key to safe dining—indoor or out—is proper spacing between tables, but most restaurants without capacity limits simply cannot do this safely. "If you do indoor dining, you do it in a spaced way where you don't have people sitting right next to each other," White House COVID advisor Anthony Fauci, MD, told CNN's Don Lemon in February.

Other experts have said that even with strict capacity limitations, it’s best to avoid all indoor dining. "I don't know why restaurants are reopening," Linsey Marr, a civil and environmental engineer who has studied airflow and COVID transmission, told CNN in February. "I don't think anything's changed from the time the restaurants were closed. If anything, it's riskier because of the new variants that are more transmissible."

And speaking of those new variants, check out This One Vaccine May Protect You Against All Variants, New Study Says.

Confined outdoor spaces are also best avoided.

During the colder winter months, many restaurants have come up with a creative solution to closed indoor spaces: outdoor dining pods. But experts say that these can pose their own sort of risk if they’re not properly cleaned and aired out between customers.

When these dining bubbles are completely enclosed, they also ramp up the risk of COVID spread for anyone from two separate households dining together. Because, while you may be separated from crowds, you’re almost sure to come in contact with your dining companion’s exhaled air in these cramped conditions.

“If you are meeting friends [in a dining pod] I'd pretty much call that a boutique COVID party!” practicing internist David Fisman, MD, professor of epidemiology at University of Toronto in Canada, told Forbes of enclosed dining pods. However, he says, “if you're in there with your household bubble you're not exposed to anyone you're not exposed to anyway.”

And for more essential COVID news, check out Be Prepared for This the Night You Get Your COVID Vaccine, Doctors Warn.