Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening has allowed bars and restaurants to serve diners in indoor and outdoor space at a reduced capacity. Over the last few weeks, maskless mingling appears to have driven up Toronto’s COVID-19 infection rate and, as a result, doctors recommend proceeding with caution when dining out.
Dr. Susy Hota, Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at the University Health Network, advises strongly against dining in enclosed spaces. “I avoid indoor dining. We’re still in a pandemic, and so I weigh the risks against the necessity and benefits of everything I do. Dining out means taking off your mask for typically more than an hour in a closed environment with strangers around you. Even with distancing of tables and servers wearing masks, it presents more risk than several other activities (such as shopping) with masks on.”
“One of the most important factors to consider for indoor dining is the local epidemiology. How common is COVID-19 in your neighbourhood? Right now, COVID-19 cases are rising in my area, so I am not keen on partaking in any indoor dining. I also have young, school-aged children so there are many reasons why I would not want to risk an exposure to COVID-19 this fall,” she says.
Before dining at a restaurant, Dr. Hota suggests checking out what the restaurant is doing to prevent COVID-19 infections. Do a little research before your visit to make sure the restaurant is doing the best it can with masking policies, spacing of patrons and cleaning practices. “You should limit the time you are in the restaurant. Choose a place that is large and in a newer building, if possible. Good ventilation is important for COVID-19 prevention and small restaurants in old buildings may not be able to provide adequately ventilated spaces. Most importantly, trust your instinct. If you get a bad feeling about how things are going, politely pay your bill and leave!”
The doctor is not against takeout, however, to support your favourite restaurants. “I have taken advantage of these options, so I can continue to enjoy the amazing culinary offerings of my city as well as support restaurants that are taking a hit during the pandemic.”
Dr. Michael Gardam, Infections Disease Specialist and Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Women’s College Hospital holds similar opinions. “To be honest, I have not been inside a restaurant since March and likely won’t do so until I’m vaccinated. Each time we are around others, there is a risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. I am not a huge restaurant person to begin with and in a situation like this, I’d prefer takeout meals more than I normally would to help keep places going.”
Dr. Gardam also points out the risks of moving indoors this fall season. “We do need to think that our cases have been steadily rising over the past three weeks and now with schools and universities reopening, we will see many more cases in the coming weeks. The risk of going to restaurants will increase as well, especially if indoors.”
He further reminds diners, “We are not back to normal yet and likely won’t be for another year or more.”
“People should ask themselves whether going inside a restaurant is worth the risk to them and to those around them,” he adds.
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, Infectious Disease Specialist at Trillium Health Partners, however, appears more optimistic. “While we have seen transmissions associated with restaurants and bars, at least in Ontario, they have been relatively minor. This suggests that for the most part, these establishments have been able to abide by public health regulations. But there is some elevated risk now that there will likely be more indoor dining. So, the need to maintain physical distancing is more important than ever.”
Dr. Chakrabarti also suggests you keep a log of which restaurants/bars you visit in case you are part of a contact tracing investigation to help with recall. “Remember, if you are done eating, put your mask on, pay your bill and leave at once. Be aware of physical distancing both from other patrons, and from people at your table (if they are not in your social bubble). In terms of COVID-19, there is a lower risk of transmission when outside, so eating at patios is always preferable, given they are equipped with portable heaters.”