Opinion: Is it safe to eat out??

I have a dilemma! It’s my son’s birthday soon and he wants to go to a Thai restaurant … a Thai restaurant that was closed due to COVID a few weeks ago but is now reopened. Moreover, I am still a bit nervous about big crowds in small spaces. Six months of restrictions have made me wary. We tried to go to the local pub for Father’s Day – but when we got there it had a queue with over 200 people booked, and little evidence of social distancing. Unfortunately, since we have been lucky to escape most COVID outbreaks, complacency has settled in.

Restrictions are being relaxed – even to some extent in Victoria. And whilst the virus is far from beaten it is currently under control in Australia – unlike many other countries. This is permitting people to eat out again. Restaurants, cafés, pubs are all beginning to reopen, albeit with some restrictions and a preference for open-air dining. Social distancing is still vital, but we can go out and socialise in small groups in almost all States and cities now.

So, should you go out to eat??

Yes. Of course, you should.

As long as you take a few precautions and understand the risks, eating out is as safe as ever – and going out is helping to stimulate the economy.

As I have previously highlighted, restaurants are hotspots. The very nature of dining out, that is, large numbers of people, sitting together in the same space, for an extended period of time, sharing food and drinks, talking, laughing, singing, and generally having fun, are ideal conditions for the spread of COVID-19. NSW Health defines a “close contact” for possible COVID-19 transmission to be someone who has been face-to-face with a confirmed case for at least 15 minutes or in the same enclosed space for two hours or more while that person was infectious. This makes restaurants a risk.

But we take risks every day. Crossing the road in heavy traffic. Going for a swim in the ocean. Climbing up a ladder onto a roof. Walking down a dark lane. Meeting someone new. Riding a bike. Drinking a very hot cup of coffee. Skydiving. Et cetera, et cetera. In everyday life we both consciously and unconsciously assess risks. Even eating out can be a risk; we assume that we won’t get food poisoning, but will I like the food? Will it cost too much? Is it as good as my usual place? Will my friends like it? Fortunately, most of these decisions are easy to make.

Going out in COVID times is no different. We simply need to be aware of the risks and minimise our exposure to potential transmission.

Location plays a major role. In Queensland, where the rates of infection are very low, the risk to going out is also very low. Whilst in Melbourne, whilst the rates of transmission are coming down, the risks are somewhat higher. So if the rate of infection in your area is high, then you should consider the risk more carefully.

Ventilation is important. The early mass transmissions in China and several outbreaks in Australia were due to poor ventilation spreading the virus around. Fresh air and open windows are a good sign. Al fresco dining outdoors is the best option.

Crowded spaces are a problem. The risk of infection increases in large crowds – so avoid them. Social distancing is still vital. Even in the open air. I have talked about social distancing several times in this column (see video here and article on Social Distancing and 1.5m here). It cannot be stressed enough that the best form of COVID risk minimisation is to stay 1.5 metres or more apart. So if the place looks crowded and you are not comfortable – go elsewhere.

Registration is important. So the health authorities can follow up with people if an outbreak occurs, they need to know who dined and when. Venue operators are required to record the name, telephone number and email address for EVERY guest who dines in, as well as staff and contractors. This information needs to be kept for between 28 and 56 days depending on where you are. Refer to my article on Privacy vs Safety (click here). Make sure that the venue is collecting this data securely.

Sanitising is important. Staff at restaurants and cafés should be sanitising every table and chair when a party leaves and before the next group sits down. Hand sanitiser should be available for guests – and both staff and guests should wash their hands regularly. Conspicuous sanitisation is a positive thing! Complacency is not.

Reducing cross-contamination is important. The use of QR codes and single-use menus will help stop the transfer of the virus, which can survive on hard surfaces for some time. Similarly, shared condiments and water jugs must not be used.

So if the restaurant you are about to enter seems to be complying with all of these simple safety measures, and you feel confident that the hygiene protocols are good, then the risks of dining out are low. You should go and enjoy yourself.

But if the place is crowded and poorly managed, err on the side of caution and go elsewhere. It is much safer to stay safe so we can all dine together another day.

And of course, if you are feeling unwell, do not go out. And get tested. If you have flu-like symptoms, stay at home and seek medical advice.

Together we can all stay safe and dine another day.

By Jeremy Ryland

Photo by Michael Marais on Unsplash

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