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Don’t Eat With Your Hands, and Other Rules for Dining Out in Philly During the Pandemic

While takeout remains the safest option, medical experts have advice for reducing risk when dining out right now

people eating at outdoor tables on a sidewalk
With dining rooms closed, Philadelphia restaurants are setting up tables outside.
Justin Blasi

Philadelphia restaurants have been serving diners at outdoor tables for more than a month now, with some people enthusiastically booking reservations while others hold back as coronavirus case counts continue to rise throughout the country.

“People are looking for the safest of the unsafe options,” says Dr. Thomas Fekete, chair of medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. “You’re not at a zero-risk experience — don’t even expect that.”

Philly is currently in a modified version of Pennsylvania’s green phase of reopening, which means no indoor dining within the city until August 1 at the earliest — and even that date is tentative. Restaurants in the rest of the state have been allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity indoors, but with Gov. Tom Wolf today changing that to 25 percent, it seems unlikely Philly will start indoor dining in two weeks. Meanwhile, the city has expanded options for outdoor dining, allowing restaurants to set up tables on the sidewalk, in curbside parking spaces, and in parking lots.

There are still plenty of concerns tied to eating al fresco for both customers and workers, especially if restaurants don’t strictly follow social distancing and other safety guidelines. But for those determined not to cook, health experts say there are ways to lower risk.

Takeout is still the safest way to eat restaurant food

Even though Philly restaurants are open for outdoor dining, the safest way to eat food from a restaurant is to order takeout, experts say. “Eating in public presents risks to both you as well as the people who are working. There are still risks to eating outdoors,” says Dr. Ashley Ritter, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a member of the National Clinical Scholars Program. She’s been working with Dear Pandemic, a collective of female PhDs who have backgrounds in nursing, epidemiology, public health, and policy, to provide the public with COVID-19 safety information about some of the most debated topics, including dining out.

“There is now an increased risk of infection. In many places we see cases spiking, so takeout is still the best bet,” Ritter says.

Wear a mask as much as possible

Wearing a mask is one of the most important things the public can do for their own safety and for the safety of restaurant workers, says Ritter. She suggests wearing it as much as possible when at a restaurant, including when dining outside. The best practice is to only remove it when eating. Keep it on when walking to and from the table and any time a server comes to the table.

“Masks protect the people around diners, so putting that mask on frequently is really important — and tipping servers well,” she says.

Hear someone speaking loudly? Get out of there.

Rowdy bars, even ones with outside setups, are not the place to be during the pandemic, says Fekete, since after a few drinks —or while watching a game at a sports bar, when sports was a thing — people are known to get louder than normal. (As of July 16, in Pennsylvania alcohol can only be served for on-premises consumption if it’s within the same transaction as a meal.)

Loud people at bars and restaurants may have been annoying pre-pandemic, but now it’s full-blown dangerous. “Don’t go places where people are yelling and out of control,” Fekete says. “Yelling, singing, shouting — those things really do tend to create a spray that travels further, in the same way that coughing and sneezing does. So think of those activities as all making a mist of particles that travel further than usual before being diluted by the air or dragged down by gravity.”

In other words, the social-distancing guideline that directs people to stay 6 feet apart doesn’t do much if someone is yelling or cheering: Infection-carrying germs can travel further than 6 feet when people are raising their voices, whether they are within an enclosed space or outdoors.

Don’t eat with your hands

Philly has a number of great restaurants that serve up no-fork-needed foods like wings and tacos, but consider ordering items that require a utensil for consumption, Ritter suggests. One way coronavirus spreads is when a person touches their face with contaminated hands, and it’s hard to completely avoid touching your mouth when chowing down on cheesy nachos, saucy ribs, or injera and kitfo.

When craving food best eaten with your hands, ordering takeout to eat at home is the safest bet, Ritter says, or at least ask for a knife and fork when the server brings out a pizza.

Don’t eat inside

Indoor dining is a more complicated endeavor with a lot of unknowns, especially around ventilation, Fekete says. Even with tables spaced 6 feet apart and barriers between bar stools, there are concerns around airflow: Air conditioning could push respiratory droplets or secretions directly at diners.

If someone does go to restaurant where indoor dining is permitted, Fekete says to eat, pay, and head out — it’s not a good time to linger indoors over another round of drinks. Diners should wear masks whenever they aren’t eating.

Ritter says she has no plans to eat inside a restaurant any time soon. “It’s important to understand the risks of being indoors. Indoors there is just a higher risk that infected particles could find a diner in enough density that they would get sick,” she says. “And that’s just the unfortunate truth at this moment. There’s not a way to change that fact right now. Eating indoors continues to carry a high risk.”