Is it safe to eat and drink at restaurants and bars? Leading medical experts answer your questions

Giulia Sgarbi - 26/08/2020

Following extended lockdowns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, many hospitality operators across the world are reopening their venues to guests. While we all want to support the places we love and return to a semblance of normality, how can we do it safely? 50 Best put a call out on its social channels for your key health-related questions about returning to restaurants and bars and asked a panel of four leading international health experts to provide some well-informed answers


Professor Ramon Shaban is the University of Sydney’s Clinical Chair for Infection Prevention and Disease Control and works in Westmead Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases, Australia

Professor Robert Bollinger is a Professor of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Center for Clinical Global Health Education at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Maryland, USA

Professor Robyn Gershon is a clinical professor in epidemiology at New York University School of Global Public Health, USA

Professor Howard Forman is a Professor of Diagnostic Radiology, Public Health, Economics and Management at Yale University, Connecticut, USA


Clockwise from top left: Professor Robyn Gershon; Professor Ramon Shaban; Professor Robert Bollinger; Professor Howard Forman


  1. What are the main risks associated with eating and drinking indoors in relation to Covid-19?

Professor Ramon Shaban, University of Sydney: Covid-19 is an infectious disease that is spread by contact and droplet transmission. The main risk is coming into contact with the virus from respiratory droplets from other people with the infection, such as staff or fellow customers, which are shed onto surfaces and objects such as tabletops, door handles and other high-touch contact surfaces. 

Professor Robert Bollinger, John Hopkins University: Breathing the same air as someone else in the room is, by far, the greatest risk for Covid-19. Touching contaminated objects and items, then touching your face, mouth or eyes is a lesser risk.

  1. How can I make myself safe when eating and drinking out?

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: The first consideration needs to be: what are infection rates like in your area? In New York City, we now have less than 1% new cases. In Texas, for instance, it recently was 19% positives. So that should drive some of your decision making. But let's say that the rate is low and restaurants are opening up in your area. What would be safe? In that sense, it would be that the restaurant enforces mask use for all its employees, including in the kitchen. Outdoor dining is preferred, as it gives you the chance to have greater airflow and dilution effect. And certainly, you want to be at least six feet away from any other tables.

Professor Howard Forman, Yale University: Some of the things that we understand right now is that indoors is less safe than outdoors. Indoors with free-flowing ventilation is better than indoors with more stagnant ventilation, and bigger spaces are better than smaller spaces. We also know that social distancing works and that the more spread out people are, the safer they generally are. We know that masks work at this point, so the more that individuals who are not eating or drinking have masks, the safer the place is.

  1. Where should I sit in a restaurant to put myself at the lowest risk of contracting Covid-19?

Professor Howard Forman, Yale University: Sitting by an open window would probably help, although this is speculative at this point. Anything that has better airflow, a bigger space, and that allows you to be more distant from other people is probably helpful, too. So the best seat in the house is the one furthest away from others.

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: Aside from sitting by an open outside window, check with the restaurant that they have good air handling. Are they having frequent turnover and lots of fresh air coming into the system? A lot of places are adding UV lights where the air filters are, so that they're kind of sterilising the air as it's coming in. You don't want to have just constantly recirculating air.

  1. Is it possible to catch Covid-19 from virus-carrying servers handling plates, and does staff wearing gloves make a difference? 

Professor Howard Forman, Yale University: The thinking now is that ‘surface spread’ is a much less likely form of spread. Other than touching something that someone has directly sneezed or coughed on in the last few minutes, it's not a substantial mode that we should be concerned about. The reason to wear gloves at this moment is because it will reassure people who are coming to the restaurant.

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: In general, gloves are good, but if you touch your face or your mouth, then they're not good. So it's sometimes better to have your hands free and just frequently rub the hand gel. A good restaurant should have a sanitiser dispenser as soon as you come into the outdoor or indoor seating area, so that customers and workers can use the hand gel. The waitstaff should be washing their hands in between clients and when going back and forth to the kitchen to get plates.

The stunning dining room at White Rabbit, Moscow, which has reopened for business with strict coronavirus protocol

  1. Is it safe to touch physical menus, restaurant iPads and other ways of presenting menus?

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: A lot of places are using disposable paper menus, or they put the menu up on a chalkboard, so they don't have people handling multiple menus. They are also using individual packs of salt, pepper and ketchup. That seems pretty safe. But as soon as one set of customers is gone, the table still needs to be cleaned, wiped with disinfectant and prepared for the next customers.

Professor Howard Forman, Yale University: Until we have more guidance, the fewer we touch other things, the better. But we believe now that this is a very low risk activity.

  1. What questions should I ask the restaurant or bar when I’m booking?

Professor Ramon Shaban, University of Sydney: Ask the restaurant if they have a Covid-19 safety plan and review whether this plan is explicitly featured on their website and within the business.

Professor Howard Forman, Yale University: If you witness social distancing, if you don't see people crowding at the bar, if you see people wearing masks and gloves as a signal and if you see waitstaff being very cautious – those are things that would reassure me.

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: Restaurants should be doing a daily health check with all their employees. A lot of people with Covid-19 don't have a fever, so temperature checks are not that useful, but having their employees do a daily symptom check would be.

  1. Does the length of time I am in a restaurant affect how likely I am to contract Covid-19?

Professor Ramon Shaban, University of Sydney: Yes. The longer you are in a restaurant, the greater the risk of contracting Covid-19. There are, however, a range of other factors that are considered in terms of the activities and behaviours of customers and staff in restaurants that are reviewed in any outbreak investigation.

Professor Howard Forman, Yale University: That's more akin to saying, ‘does being around people increase the risk of getting the virus?’ And the answer to that is ‘yes’. But that’s not tied to restaurants or bars per se, it's true of anything.

  1. Does what I order make me any more susceptible to contraction?

Professor Ramon Shaban, University of Sydney: In broad terms, no, other than the extent to which the food is handled by others. The more it is handled by staff, the higher the risk of contact transmission. Food that is in a form that does not lend itself to survival of viable virus – i.e. food at a high temperature – presents less of a risk.

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: In general, cooked foods are safer than the likes of salads or fresh fruits, because when you cook foods, you get rid of many pathogens that could just be in food in general.

  1. How likely am I to catch Covid-19 from condiments or cutlery?

Professor Ramon Shaban, University of Sydney: The general risk of these items is low, provided safe food handling practices are adopted. With respect to condiments, single-use only products are the safest, provided they are handled hygienically and are not contaminated by staff with infection. Cutlery and crockery should be clean and washed in accordance with food safety standards, such as high temperature commercial washers with appropriate detergent agents.

Professor Robert Bollinger, John Hopkins University: Compared to the risk of sitting inside of a restaurant and sharing the room air with unmasked people, this additional risk is very low.

  1. What are the critical moments when I should wash my hands if I’m dining out?

Professor Ramon Shaban, University of Sydney: On arrival, after touching common-use items such as menus, before eating, after going to the bathroom, and upon leaving the restaurant.

Professor Robert Bollinger, John Hopkins University: Anytime you touch a surface that has not been disinfected.

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: You should be using the hand gel when you sit at the table and before you leave the table, because the virus might be on the chair or on the table.

Employees Only, New York, which is currently open for outdoor service and delivery drinks

  1. Is it safe to use the restroom in a restaurant?  

Professor Howard Forman, Yale University: Restrooms are a potentially risky spot, as typically they’re small, closed spaces and people frequently crowd around sinks, urinals and so on. It also is a place where, unless you're paying particular attention, you don't know who was in it 30 seconds before you. It's possible that somebody may have allowed a sneeze with viral particles to spew everywhere, and it could take minutes for those to completely settle out of the air. In theory, the bathroom is probably the riskiest part of a restaurant experience. If you know that no one has been in the bathroom for the last five minutes, you're probably walking into a safer place.

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: When you get to a restroom, wash your hands. Then use the toilet, and if there is a seat cover, close it because the virus can come in the urine. Wash your hands, use paper towels and also use the paper towel or tissue to open the door. And then at that point, use the hand gel again. And wear a mask to the bathroom and whenever you're standing up in a restaurant.

  1. Food tasting is an essential part of cooking. Is there a safe way for chefs to do this?

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: Any time anyone is tasting from a pot, they should take a little bit out with a clean utensil, put it in a dish, taste, and then put the dish in the sink. They should not be tasting directly from the food that's going to be served directly to the client – but that would be crazy and I'm sure no one does that.

  1. Should I avoid going up to the bar to order drinks?

Professor Robyn Gershon, New York University: Yes. I don't think it's a good idea to go to the counter or to be drinking at the bar. At a bar, you're just elbow to elbow, and even if you stay away from others, you're still close to the bartender.

Visit the Restaurant Recovery Hub and the Bar Recovery Hub to explore useful resources and read the stories of chefs and bartenders around the world during the pandemic. Follow 50 Best on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for the latest news and videos.