Read this before you start filling your calendar with reservations.

Karla Walsh; Reviewed by Lisa Valente, M.S., RD
March 17, 2021

How nice would it be to possess a crystal ball to peek into what our post-pandemic landscape might look like?

Since none of us are fortune tellers, it's tough to predict what will be forever changed and what will bounce back quickly. It's clear, however, that a lot of us are itching to return to some sense of "normalcy."

According to a January 2021 survey from Airbnb, 54% of Americans have either already booked, are planning to travel or expect to travel in 2021. And many of us are dreaming of summer gatherings, especially after President Biden's address on March 11 when he mentioned, "July 4th with your loved ones is the goal," after setting a deadline of May 1 for all Americans to be eligible to book their first vaccine appointment.

For many of us, our previous routine included a fair amount of dining out at restaurants to support local businesses, take a break from cooking, socialize with loved ones and try diverse cuisines. So is it safe to dine out ASAP once you're fully vaccinated? (BTW "full" vaccination kicks in two weeks after your final shot is administered.)

The CDC suggests we shouldn't quite rush out and return to our previous mask-less meals, even once you're fully vaccinated.

"Risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection during public social activities such as dining indoors at a restaurant or going to the gym is lower for fully vaccinated people," they said in their March 8 Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People. "However, precautions should still be taken as transmission risk in these settings is higher and likely increases with the number of unvaccinated people present."

Waiter serving family in restaurant
Credit: Getty Images / 10'000 Hours

Even with nearly 12 percent of Americans fully vaccinated, per the latest CDC data, that still leaves seven out of every eight people potentially at risk for infection (if they don't have the antibodies from a previous infection). So since the staff at the restaurant and your fellow diners may still be at risk for infection, the CDC recommends vaccinated populations still:

  • Eat outdoors, if possible
  • Wear a well-fitted mask if away from your table, when a server approaches and anytime you're not eating or drinking
  • Maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet from those outside of your household
  • Avoid crowds
  • Limit time in poorly ventilated spaces
  • Cover coughs and sneezes and wash hands frequently

Many doctors and researchers vary based on where they fall on the risk tolerance spectrum, but most seem to be avoiding indoor dining since study after study has linked eating inside at a restaurant with increased risk for transmission. We're learning that vaccination seems to decrease viral transmission, but the final answer about if someone who has been vaccinated can still potentially pass on the virus to another unvaccinated human is still TBD.

The risk is low for the vaccinated diner, but "nobody is going out there with a big 'V' on their forehead saying 'I'm vaccinated.' So as people are looking around, if they're seeing that everyone is gathering in these very crowded restaurants, there's a message that's being sent [that it's safe]," Dr. David W. Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health tells Eater. "As more people in our society become vaccinated, everyone should feel like they can slowly get back to activities that pose some risk. I think that a lot of these discussions start to get at how we as individuals consider our roles in a broader society, and a society where both risk and opportunity for vaccination are not necessarily fairly distributed."

While there's no definite right or wrong answer—and we're all for supporting your favorite local restaurants—it might be wise to stick with mainly takeout for a few months longer. (Hey, Dr. Fauci calls getting takeout a "neighborly obligation," and we're happy to oblige!) Dr. Dowdy suggests thinking of it as an ethical issue rather than an epidemiological one, and recommends that vaccinated people think of dining at a restaurant indoors as a risk tolerance decision that depends on the circumstances.

"At some point, people are going to say, 'Look, it's my birthday, I'm going to go out, and I'm going to celebrate.' ... I think it's about choosing those events or times when we are willing to tolerate a little bit more risk. But just because I go out and celebrate for my birthday, doesn't mean I'm suddenly going out every night. It's not an all or nothing sort of situation," he says.