How Safe Is It to Dine Out If You've Been Vaccinated?

Read this before you start filling your calendar with reservations.

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."

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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests we shouldn't quite rush out and return to our previous mask-less meals, even once we'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, 2021, 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."

Even with about 73% of Americans fully vaccinated, per the latest CDC data, that still leaves 1 out of every 4 people potentially at high risk for infection (if they don't have the antibodies from a previous infection). Plus, since breakthrough cases are possible and with the omicron variant spreading so rapidly, all of us are at some risk.

ICYMI, most of the current positive cases are caused by omicron. More than 58% of coronavirus cases reported from December 19 to 25 were linked to omicron, per data published by the CDC. Just one week earlier, omicron accounted for just 22.5% of U.S. cases.

That means that the staff at the restaurant and your fellow diners are all still at risk for infection, so the CDC recommends these safety precautions:

  • 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 on how likely someone who has been vaccinated is to pass on the virus to another person 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]," David W. Dowdy, M.D., Ph.D., an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Eater.

For this reason, many major cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, now or soon will require proof of vaccination for all diners 5 and older.

That doesn't make you instantly infection-proof, however. A holiday party at a restaurant in Oslo, Norway, in late 2021 included 110 guests, most of whom were vaccinated and all of whom had tested negative one to three days prior to the bash. After the indoor gathering, more than 80 of the attendees tested positive for the omicron variant, along with 60 other diners who visited the restaurant that night, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Getting vaccinated and getting a booster shot is your best bet for protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19. The latest estimates say that vaccination can reduce hospitalization risk by approximately 70%, and with a booster shot, that rate is even higher. Still, vaccinated individuals can still transmit the virus and acquire it. (Learn more about why some vaccinated people still test positive.)

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!) 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.

Learn more about what the CDC says you can safely start doing after you are fully vaccinated.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health department as resources.

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