As lockdowns are being lifted across the country and restaurants open up for dining in, the temptation to step out with family for a meal or meet friends for coffee is far too great. But how safe is dining out? Where is the safest place to sit in a restaurant? Is outdoor better than indoor? Is it preferable to sit next to a window?
Even though in some places there are skeletal guidelines, like in Karnataka where establishments are allowed to function till 5 pm but with 50 per cent occupancy, the answers are still a bit complex. Especially since we are learning newer things about the virus and its variants, how it transmits and the efficacy of the various vaccines. This coupled with the inscrutable ventilation systems of restaurants makes it difficult and complicated to arrive at a set of guidelines. More worryingly, one study last year, found that the virus can spread across many tables due to air-conditioning and the position of airflow vents. Adding to this complexity is the absence of CDC-like detailed guidelines. Together, they have the potential to throw customers into a dilemma about dining out.
So which is safer – indoor or outdoor?
The overwhelming answer is outdoor. "Any place that is outside, on the rooftop or in the open air is the safest option," says Dr Gautham Melur Sukumar, additional professor in the department of epidemiology at Bangalore's National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS). "Even outside, there has to be wide spacing between tables, at least a metre apart, and minimal contact with others and staff," he says.
Industry insiders agree. "Open air spaces, well ventilated, even with a roof but open from the sides, are the best places to sit. Newer studies suggest the virus can be airborne, so open areas with ventilation hence are best," says Anupam Sehgal, partner at ThinkTanc, a hospitality and business consultancy firm.
If indoors is the only option, then what?
Before the pandemic, by far, the best seat in the house was at the chef's table, a table near the kitchen which was optimal for the chef to show off his skills. But the pandemic put paid to that. "Any place with air-conditioning is very risky," says Dr Sukumar. But if that's the only thing available, he suggests taking into account criteria such distancing (at least 2 metres) and opting for places with plenty of open windows and doors and a seat near one of them.
But there are also those who suggest government mandates and regulations, if adhere to properly, are adequate. "With restaurants now at 50% occupancy, I think all tables or areas are equally safe," says Amrut Mehta, director at Little Italy group of restaurants, which has more than 50 outlets in 25 cities in four countries. "We have developed a seating arrangement which spaces out the tables with adequate number of partitions, screens and different areas within the restaurant to make each table safe and ensure maximum safety to all customers," he says.
"As per government guidelines we serve only alternate tables," says Chethan Hegde, partner at Bangalore brands 1522 and Suzy Q. "The most preferred is outdoor seating, but we have also planned to ventilate indoor areas and avoid air conditioning," he says, while Sehgal suggests that to make the best of indoor seating, opt for a place "without AC, a window seat and stay away from other tables/customers".
What else should restaurant-goers consider?
Both industry insiders and health experts suggest a number of criteria to look for; topping the list is trying to find out if the staff is fully vaccinated. The three most important things are "social distancing, sanitation and masks" according to Hegde.
Sehgal has a much longer and detailed list. "Go to premium places who take sanitization very seriously," he says, adding, "Watch whether they are following all protocols as directed by health authorities. Ask the server to sanitize your table and chairs before you are seated. Try self parking your vehicle. See if at the entrance the customers are being checked for temperature and mask is compulsory to enter. At washrooms, every customer should enter with a mask and they need to be regularly sanitized."
Mehta says consumers now prefer chain restaurants, known brands or premium establishments where they can trust the establishment to maintain the highest level of safety and monitor safety restrictions. "It's important for people to choose a place to dine out keeping these factors in mind and be socially responsible while out there," he says and adds that contactless menus are another factor that can add to the safety of the consumers and staff alike.
Dr Sukumar agrees on these points but also emphasizes another crucial aspect. "It is also imperative to know how the food is being cooked and how hygienic the conditions are and if the employees in the kitchen are also wearing masks while cooking. If possible, choose to a place with an open kitchen where you can see everything," he suggests.