Apocalypse: Now What? Is it safe to eat out now?

A reader has reservations about eating out at restaurants during a pandemic.

Empty tables inside a restaurant closed by the pandemic

After closing dine-in service as a result of state-issued health guidelines, some decided to close down for good, while others tried to ride the uncertainty. Recently restaurants across the region are reopening with socially distanced tables and extra measures to protect servers and guests. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

Question: I can go back to restaurants. But should I? I want to support local businesses and get out for once, but I’m unsure if it’s safe.

Most people know me as a man of letters, not as a man of spatulas. But I can make a mean sandwich (both kinds: ketchup and mustard). When it comes to egg salad soup, I’m a pro. Dinner guests are so thrilled by my jerky casserole they usually head to the bathroom to collect themselves for several minutes. As soon as the scents of my culinary creations fill the kitchen, there’s not a dry eye left in the house. 

I thought about opening le chic bistro of my own, but the infamously brutal profit margins persuaded me to continue ascending the Forbes billionaire list with journalism. I was lucky to not choose this time to inflict my inner Guy Fieri on the general populace: The pandemic has dealt body blows to the Seattle bars and restaurants we know and love, shuttering many of them forever

So your impulse to support local restaurants is an honorable one. They need your patronage now more than ever to survive, and many are open in limited capacity under King County’s fragile Phase 2 regulations. Stringent regulations are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19: plentiful hand sanitizer, mandatory masks, distancing, outdoor seating, 10 p.m. alcohol cutoffs and more. All go a long way to make dining safer. 

Notice that pesky “-er.”

While the chances of transmitting the coronavirus via food preparation is extremely low, sharing space with other humans ensures that your chances of catching it aren’t zero. Restaurants are doing their part to help, but evaluating whether going is worth it entails putting on your personal risk management hat and risk mitigation mittens

If your favorite establishment is lucky enough to feature outdoor seating, that goes a very long way to ensuring a safe dining experience. I’ve said it before, and I hope to continue saying it: Evidence for outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is almost nonexistent, so dining al fresco should help ease your fears. Take advantage while you can; once the gloom comes, patio dining is likely to become much more uncomfortable.  

If you dine indoors, your risk increases despite the valiant efforts of many fine establishments. But mental health is a concern, and if hitting up your favorite burger shack once a week helps keep you sane, you can mitigate your risk by doing all the usual: wear a mask except when eating, wash hands or sanitize them frequently, curtail your time in the restaurant as much as possible and don’t go with anyone outside your household. 

But if you or people in your household are high-risk, you may want to stick to ordering takeout a few times a week. Plenty of restaurants that didn’t deliver before do now, and many offer contactless deliveries. Consider bypassing apps like GrubHub or DoorDash — though they are convenient, they hoover a large portion of a restaurant's slim profits. Many places are ginning up new items and specialties to offer. Fancy-pants places are dabbling in backyard burgers, and bartenders are experimenting with to-go cocktails in wondrous permutations. 

As for me? Even I get tired of horseradish pie sometimes (if you can believe it), so I make a habit of patronizing my favorite restaurants a few times a week. My favorite pizza place still won’t add circus peanuts to its selection of toppings (Philistines, amirite?), but that won’t stop this gourmand from asking.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.