Eating out has changed a lot during the pandemic. Even when indoor dining is permitted, it can be hard to know how risky it really is to sit down and order a waffle or a burrito. Washington’s guidelines for food-service businesses are designed to maximize safety and allow customers to make informed choices about safety where they eat. Knowing what those guidelines are — and how to spot a restaurant that’s doing it right — can help all of us make good decisions to protect ourselves and our communities.
Here’s something to remember: COVID-19 spreads person-to-person through the air.
Many of the COVID-19 safeguards required for food and beverage businesses are designed to minimize how much air we share. That’s why a restaurant allows fewer people inside, why everyone who isn’t eating or drinking should wear a mask, and why good airflow and ventilation is the top priority indoors.
COVID-19 is an airborne virus. In enclosed spaces, vapor from an infected person’s breath builds up in the air, like smoke.
So, to reduce the risk of spreading or catching the virus, pay close attention to airflow and ventilation. This is especially important when people have to remove their masks in order to eat and drink. Outdoor spaces tend to be safest.
If a restaurant offers indoor dining, it should take measures to allow fresh air to move freely through spaces. Public Health–Seattle & King County recommends three ways to improve indoor air to reduce the risks from COVID-19.
What it looks like:
Sometimes these measures are obvious — open windows and doors are almost always a good sign! Ideally these openings should allow a good crossflow of fresh air across the space. Exhaust fans in the bathroom and kitchen should be running non-stop. Other airflow measures are tougher to see, such as enhanced air-handling and filtration systems.
The Barbeque Pit Pitmaster Edward Whitfield, better known as Pookey, reopened The Barbeque Pit in a new Seattle Central District location last summer. He’s been doing takeout since then and plans to open for limited indoor dining later this month. “We have an open dining area with two front bay doors, and I always let the doors stay open. It’s pretty spacious, and people will be able to space themselves accordingly,” he says.
Whitfield has gone above and beyond to make sure customers can stay safe while they await their pulled pork or brisket mac and cheese bowls. “I have hand sanitizer all over the place — at the front door, at the counter, at every table,” Whitfield says.
“I’ve got a box of masks at the front door. All of us have lost a mask or left a mask some time. People will say, ‘Oh I left my mask!’ I say, ‘no problem, I have a whole box here.’”
Avoid crowded indoor spaces. Occupancy limits depend on how widespread COVID-19 is in the community. King County is in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening framework, in which food businesses can serve at maximum 50% customer capacity, or less if space is tight. The allowed capacity goes down to 25% for counties in Phase 2.
What it looks like:
You should see plenty of space between tables, and no large parties (limit of 10 people per party under Phase 3). If you see open spaces where some tables used to be, or tables/counters blocked off from seating, that’s a good sign the restaurant is taking COVID precautions seriously!
Ba Bar Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood impressed Public Health inspectors with its commitment to customer and staff safety. COVID-19 safety rules are displayed at each table, and staff are careful not to crowd the dining area.
“We make sure that we follow the capacity guidelines,” says a Ba Bar manager. “We were at 25% capacity [during Phase 2] and now at 50% [during Phase 3]. Even though there are a lot of empty tables, we only allow the exact amount.”
Masks and distancing
You can’t tell someone has COVID-19 by looking at them so wearing well-made masks and staying as far from others as possible are crucial to stopping the spread. State guidelines require food businesses to ensure that all employees wear masks, and that customers also mask up when they’re not eating and drinking. Businesses should make sure employees can stay six feet apart in most situations.
What it looks like:
All restaurant staff should be wearing masks at work. You shouldn’t see employees congregating for long periods. Other customers should be masked when they’re not eating or drinking, and especially when they’re moving around the establishment. Look for signs and flyers posted that remind people about mask requirements and speak up if you don’t see them.
At Naan-n-Curry in Issaquah, owner Shan Janjua says COVID-19 precautions are part of taking care of employees and customers. “Safety of my employees is my priority because they interact with many customers. It’s important that we follow and enforce the guidelines.”
All employees wear masks at Naan-n-Curry, which is open for takeout only. No more than four customers are allowed in the restaurant at a time, and people are encouraged to wait outside for their food. Customers can get a text message when their order is ready.
Meanwhile, Janjua says, it’s important for employees to feel comfortable as they take extra precautions:
“We adapted our process, such as giving employees more breaks. They are wearing masks and standing in front of hot equipment, so giving them more breaks to ensure they are doing ok is really important. It’s important that I take care of my employees, so that they are doing their job and producing products that the customers will appreciate.”
Be sure to keep an eye out for these signs that a restaurant is being diligent about COVID safety. If you see problems, you can let Public Health know by filing a complaint. And remember, if you are unsure about dining in, you can still support local restaurants and food businesses by ordering takeout!
Originally posted April 15, 2021