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Is indoor dining safe once you've had the COVID-19 vaccine? Experts are split on the risk

Grace Dickinson, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

"I don't dine in person, but it's not because I'm concerned about my personal risk," says Craig Shapiro, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. "When people congregate in restaurants, it sends a message that it's OK for everyone to do those things, when the reality is, we still only have a little less than a quarter of the population that has received one dose of the vaccine. Short of large gatherings, dining in restaurants is one of the most risky situations to be in."

What is the risk of indoor dining if you're vaccinated (for you and others)?

By nature, restaurants bring together multiple households in the same space, without everyone wearing masks. The more people in the restaurant, the greater the risk, especially now, when the majority of the country remains unvaccinated.

"Even if you've been vaccinated, there's a risk of you potentially becoming infected, and we're also concerned you could still transmit [the virus] asymptomatically to other people in the restaurant," says Mareiniss.

No vaccine is ever 100% effective, and researchers are still studying how effective the COVID-19 vaccines are against multiple circulating variants, as well as if you can be a silent carrier when you're vaccinated. Until there's more data, Mareiniss encourages caution.

However, early research in both of these areas is pointing in a positive direction, and Goldstein says there are bigger risks we must tackle — the main one being vaccine hesitancy.

"Unfortunately when we tell people, 'Why get vaccinated if nothing changes?', it seems to disincentivize getting vaccinated, and vaccination is the best tool that we have right now to get back to normal," says Goldstein. "Once vaccinated, you dramatically lower the risk to yourself and others and should be able to enjoy eating in a restaurant."

Preliminary data from Israel suggests that people vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine have a viral load four times lower than unvaccinated people, which may indicate it's less likely that you could transmit the virus.

"It's not clinical trial evidence — those studies are still underway — but I'm optimistic that a vaccinated person won't spread the virus, and with the right safety precautions at the restaurant, I believe it's a minimal concern," says Goldstein.

 

Shapiro also believes this isn't a primary concern, but says community transmission rates aren't yet low enough to let down our guard. There are other ways vaccinated people can spread the virus — and that's if you get infected. Current variants make it challenging to predict your exact risk of getting infected.

"You're not likely to need hospitalization or die [if you get infected after vaccination], but does that mean you couldn't spread it to someone else? No, and you're increasing that risk by entering an environment that we know is particularly risky," says Shapiro.

"It's a tightrope we're walking. We want people to get vaccinated, we want to give them hope, and getting the vaccine does make it safer to do more things," says Shapiro. "If you are going to dine in, the most important things are going to be [table] spacing, mask wearing, ventilation, and the cleaning processes." Shapiro recommends calling in advance. If a place can't communicate their safety measures, choose another restaurant.

What about outdoor dining?

As the weather heats up, outdoor dining becomes a more practical option, and the good news is that even many of the most cautious experts say they'd feel comfortable dining outdoors once fully vaccinated.

"I'd be totally fine eating outdoors and with low risk people," says Mareiniss. "But everyone in their household must be low risk. If grandma's at home, I wouldn't eat with them."

Goldstein says he'd choose outdoors, too, if sharing a meal with people who aren't yet vaccinated. And Shapiro says he'd always recommend outdoor dining over indoor when it's an option. As more people become vaccinated, advice is expected to evolve.

"At some point, we also have to understand this virus isn't disappearing," says Shapiro. "It's going to become part of our daily lives, just like influenza or any other respiratory virus, and at some point we are going to have to accept those risks, albeit hopefully when they become even smaller, but that risk is never going to be zero. Once we can be in an environment and know everyone is vaccinated, that's the best that we can do."

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