To Dine or Not to Dine? What to Consider Amid Coronavirus Concerns

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On March 12, there started to be concrete reasons to be concerned about a widespread COVID-19 outbreak in the Greater Houston area and surrounding counties. That day, three cases were reported that increased chances of the virus being transmitted through community spread (i.e., cases not tied to people who’ve been in a country dealing with an outbreak):
  • A Montgomery County man who tested “presumptive positive” attended the Rodeo Houston International Barbecue Competition on February 28. That date is significant, as it falls within the 14-day COVID-19 incubation period. This is also the first case not specifically tied to international travel.
  • A woman who traveled from Italy after living there also tested “presumptive positive”. Harris County officials are asking her fellow airline passengers who were in the business/first class sections to self-isolate.
  • A female “in the 15 to 25 age range” is presumed positive after traveling from New York.

Until that point, only 12 cases were diagnosed in the Houston area; all people who were passengers on the same Egyptian cruise line. As of this article publication date of March 14 — only two days later — the number of positive or presumptive-positive cases has climbed to 23. Some of these latest cases exemplify community transmission and a lack of proper quarantine procedures.

downstairs bar area at Perry's Steakhouse & Grille
A view of the downstairs bar area at Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille​. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

An online poll of our readers revealed that 18 percent are concerned now about dining out in restaurants. Our audience reads our articles generally because they love dining out, so that means that among the general population, the fears are likely greater.

Many restaurants have already announced stepped-up sanitation, training and safety procedures, but Dr. Edward R. Rensimer, a board-certified infectious diseases specialist and specialist in International Medicine, says that also diners need to take their own measures. “If people are going to go out, there are things you can do to lessen the public health problem,” Rensimer said. “Individuals need to take responsibility, too. It’s not either/or. It’s both parties. The public can’t just put it on the restaurant to be clean. The restaurant needs to inform the public that they are concerned about them, too.”

(Rensimer also recently appeared on ABC 13’s Facebook live feed to answer questions from viewers and that video is below.)

Conversely, he also says that there are tactful ways for restaurants to discourage sick customers from coming in. “It’s fair to post on the website or warn people with a sign on the door that says, ‘In the interest of public health, we ask you to exercise responsibility and not eat here if you potentially have a contagious illness. Please visit at another time.” Some services, such as Postmates, are now offering no-contact delivery, where packages are left on the doorstep, and that is one way ill customers can still be served.

Rensimer recommends that those aged 65 or over — or those with underlying medical conditions such as being on certain medicines, or having treatments or conditions that weaken their immune systems, like cancer — do not dine out right now. “It would be best for them to not be in public places right now, and that includes restaurants,” he said. “There’s an in-between ground. If you have an at-risk family member, if you have a meal out, get one to-go and take it to them. If you are an at-risk person, order it and ask a friend or family member to pick it up for you. That’s better than getting food from a stranger, but you’re not shut out and feeling disenfranchised — and you get to enjoy a nice meal.”

Bun B and executive chef Alex Padilla in the Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys kitchen. Photo by Emily Jaschke.

Rensimer suggests that restaurants might also consider installing a hand hygiene station like medical facilities have right by the entrance. “If a restaurant really wants to send a message to customers that they’re serious about hygiene right now, that’s a good way to do it,” he said.

It’s worth noting that restaurant kitchens can (and should) be cleaner than some home kitchens, and owners and professional cooks should also be much better trained in food safety than home cooks. As of September 1, 2016, the City of Houston Health Department started requiring that all food handlers complete a food handler training course. This is in addition to the requirement that someone with a Food Manager Certification be present “during all stages of operation.”

Here are some additional tips for dining out while being proactive about safety.

  • Do consider pickup and delivery, which Rensimer considers safer than dining in. Many restaurants are already adjusting to accommodate curbside service.
  • Houston Health Department inspection reports are searchable public records. Anyone can see if a restaurant has violations before they go. Do, however, look at the specifics. Some infractions are extremely minor and often corrected onsite during the inspection. Most inspectors will find something to write up on a visit.
  • Conscientious restaurant owners are eager to share information about their cleanliness, hygiene and training procedures because they don’t want customers to worry. Check the restaurant’s social media account to see if that information has been shared yet.
  • If dining rooms and restrooms are a mess, chances are that the kitchen is even worse. If public-facing area look dirty, leave and go somewhere else.
  • Avoid restaurants that have little space between tables and chairs. Some places really try and pack ’em in, but until we understand how much community spread we’ll see with COVID-19, this isn’t the best time to be elbow-to-elbow with strangers. Conscientious restaurant owners have already removed some tables and chairs to increase the distance between diners, or are seating customers at a good distance between each other.
  • Bring your own hand sanitizer. While it’s a good sign when a restaurant has it available for customers, the current shortage means that owners may have to reserve their supplies strictly for employees.
  • Bring disposable gloves, too. No, that’s not paranoia. Consider how many people before you touched common-use and reusable items, such as plastic or bound menus and table condiments. Just remember: bring extras. After touching a bunch of common-use items with your gloves, you’ll have to discard those before you eat.
  • Sanitize your hands after touching restaurant door handles. Literally everyone who enters uses those, too.
  • Be careful with handheld foods. If you order something like hot wings or a burger, be mindful of sanitizing or washing your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before handing your food.
  • Call ahead: many restaurant owners are proud of the cleanliness of their establishments. If you have a question about their procedures, call and ask to speak with someone about your concerns.
  • There should be no sign of coughing or sneezing restaurant staff. Many restaurants have already posted no-sick-employee policies. “If I were a client sitting at a table in the age of coronavirus, don’t think I’d feel too good about somebody with a cough, sneeze or runny nose waiting on our table,” said Rensimer.
  • Go for the tried and true. Patronize your favorite, trusted neighborhood restaurants. The owners would really appreciate your support. Also, consider older restaurants. Businesses that stick around for decades usually have owners with years of experience and plenty of time to work on operational processes, including cleanliness and employee training.

Coronavirus fears have many people nervous right now — but we’ve all got to eat, and it can be a drag to be stuck at home preparing every meal yourself. Diners who choose to dine out should take responsible precautions so they can actually relax and enjoy the experience.

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