On April 19, everyone 16 or older became eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. In Massachusetts, restaurant employees qualified March 22. In the coming weeks, as people continue to get their shots, many will be contemplating a return to dining out. How can those who eat and work in restaurants do so in the safest way possible?
To help answer that question, the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program this month released a guide called “Safety First: Protecting Workers and Diners as Restaurants Reopen,” collaborating with organizations such as Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen, the James Beard Foundation, the National Restaurant Association, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and One Fair Wage. An update to guidelines released earlier in the pandemic, these recommendations bring together the latest CDC guidance with the perspectives of infection control specialists, chefs and restaurateurs, ventilation engineers, and other experts from the fields of health and hospitality.
To learn more about best practices for diners and restaurants, the Globe spoke with Corby Kummer, executive director of the Food and Society policy program at the Aspen Institute, senior lecturer at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and a longtime restaurant critic at Boston magazine and beyond.
Q. This has been a very difficult year for restaurant owners and those who work in the industry. Is the pain close to being over?
A. Some people have said, “Hey, I’ve got my staff vaccinated, it’s over. It’s going to be over in 45 days.” I think it’s so not going to be over in 45 days, or even 90 days. One of the reasons I’m spending night and day raising money for training curricula, to make them really good, is that the next two months, say, are crucial times when restaurant owners feel like they can relax restrictions. They’re desperate, understandably, to relax restrictions, but given that Michigan is having to say, “Yeah, we reopened, but we’re asking you to voluntarily stop indoor dining…” The Diner Code and the COVID Pledge and the whole rigamarole is designed so restaurants don’t have to close again. It’s ruinous for businesses to have to open and close.
Q. Let’s talk about those two pieces of the guidelines: the Diner Code of Conduct and, on the restaurant side, the COVID Pledge. Of course, diners must stay home if they have COVID, symptoms, or an exposure. What are other key expectations around diner behavior?
A. Even if they’re vaccinated, they don’t get to claim special treatment. They need to keep masks on. They need to look at distancing. They need to be incredibly courteous to the people who are taking risks. They want to tip big and give all kinds of breaks because of the stress their servers and restaurant owners are under.
Q. And what must restaurants be doing to maximize safety?
A. Energy and time and staff stress have to be around mask enforcement, physical distance, and ventilation. Those are the key things. That’s what we emphasize all throughout this.
Q. Things like washing hands and sanitizing high-touch surfaces are mentioned. But for the most part, surface sanitization has really been deemphasized. The CDC also updated its guidelines to reflect the low risk of surface transmission, just as “Safety First” came out.
A. We kept asking in meetings: Where are the documented cases of touching a menu or table and getting COVID? It’s possible there could be surface transmission, but it’s extremely unlikely. It’s not thought to be a main route of transmission. All the news is good about that. That’s why we spent all our time on ventilation and what was cheap and achievable for cash-strapped operators.
Q. The ventilation basics in the guidelines are: “Supply as much fresh or filtered air as possible; exhaust air to the outside or clean it with high-efficiency filters; control airflow to move air up and away from people.” Here it feels like there is good news, too: Ventilation is crucial, but portable air purifiers are inexpensive and effective.
A. Air purifying units are cheap and practical. They were $75; now they’re probably over $100. We’ve seen a lot of price gouging, but they’re still pretty cheap. Buy the cheapest one with a HEPA filter — none of this ultraviolet stuff or other snake oil — and make sure it vents upward. Movable Plexiglass barriers help keep the airflow safe.
Q. That was a surprise for me. I’d thought Plexiglass was mainly hygiene theater, but it has a real use.
A. It’s theater as far as pretending it’s going to shield one table from another. Plexiglass is nice to do between tables if you want to space them, but the most important use for them is to block horizontal air ventilation, especially if a table is next to an air intake vent. Air intake vents are one of those things restaurants can’t change, so you can try to move tables away from that air intake vent, or you can easily buy Plexiglass barriers and position them so that they block horizontal transmission. One of my many schemes that was too expensive was to get health departments to use public health money for COVID relief to give hourlong free consults with HVAC engineers for restaurants looking to reopen: Here is a realistic assessment of your restaurant, your square footage, your ventilation system, how many portable air purifiers you need and where. We have an online tool, but it’s not as good as having an engineer come in and give you a good consultation.
Q. And what are the recommendations for distancing?
A. When keeping distance between tables, 6 feet. I’m dying for the CDC to revise that guidance. Schools have moved to 3 because there’s been such low transmission, but they have not changed that for adults. We will change ours the minute the CDC changes, but nothing has so far.
Q. Let’s talk about vaccination and how that works in restaurants, both in terms of staff and customers.
A. One of the main public health messages we are trying to emphasize for restaurant owners is that the first priority is vaccination for all your workers. Make it easy. Give them paid time to do it. The restaurant operators I really admire have gone online and made appointments for their workers, or they have followed up with all their workers with text messages: I sent you the link, have you registered, when are you going to get vaccinated? They’ve made it very easy and prioritized it. But diners still have to follow the rules. The vaccinated can’t get away with something: “No, I’m fine, I can keep my mask off because I’ve been vaccinated.” Restaurants can’t be in the business of verifying vaccination.
Q. When diners decide to go out for dinner, what should they ask? What should they look for?
A. I think they should feel good if they see the Diner Code of Conduct and the COVID Pledge up in the window. I would ask, “What have you done for ventilation? What are the new steps you’ve taken and how does it work in your restaurant?” In New York, I ate in one of those outdoor cabanas with a big, wide opening. There’s not the cross-ventilation I would like, but one door is open. I said to the server, who was incredibly friendly, what is your procedure between dining parties? I wanted him to say we take a big-ass fan and vent it out, but he said we’re very careful about wiping down the table. I thought, you should know by now that’s not what counts.
Q. So: You’ve put together a set of guidelines designed to help make themselves obsolete. What does the picture look like to you in the near future?
A. We don’t see herd immunity coming until Labor Day at the very earliest, and probably not then. There’s this triumphalism that everybody is going to be vaccinated — God willing, but I think these basic rules still have to stay in place.
Interview was edited and condensed.