Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

KaiJuly 23, 2022

How to have a great meal out – without a side of Covid

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

We’re in the midst of an omicron surge and while few restrictions remain around dining out, there’s still plenty you can do to reduce the risk.

We’re currently in the midst of a second major wave of omicron infections in Aotearoa but, in stark contrast to the immediate alert level jumps of years past, nothing has changed in our traffic light settings.

Nowhere is this apparent dissonance between case numbers and our near non-existent restrictions starker than when you step into a cafe, restaurant or bar. In hospitality, almost all of the Covid-19 precautions that were once in place have been peeled away. Vaccine passes are gone, distancing is over, venue occupancy numbers are out, seated-only service is defunct. The only remaining restriction requires public-facing workers at indoor hospitality venues to wear a medical-grade face mask, but mandatory masks for customers are no more. 

In hospitality, almost all of the Covid-19 precautions that were once in place have come to an end. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dining out is part of the rhythm of everyday life in New Zealand, but when you consider the specific set of conditions that come with it – strangers in enclosed spaces eating and chatting sans masks, an absence of ventilation requirements, and workers often with limited sick leave – the specific risk these environments pose for Covid-19 transmission becomes apparent.

As we continue to battle this current wave, here’s a list of simple things you can do to protect yourself and those around you while still getting your culinary fix.

Opt for takeaways

Likely the safest thing you can do to avoid transmission while dining out is to, well, avoid dining out. But that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a treat cooked by a professional – get takeaways. What this alternative lacks in seamless service and buzzy ambience is made up for by the benefits of being in your trackpants and slippers, potentially in front of the telly and just a few strides from bed. I can thoroughly recommend getting a few friends together to try something new by way of takeout, and the wait for a table is only as long as it takes you to clear the letters and receipts off your kitchen bench or dining table.

Dine outside

My relationship to outdoor tables at the moment is comparable to a moth to a flame. It might be cold, but it’s worth the effort to rug up in your warmest layers. As we now know, Covid-19 (along with the other respiratory viruses making their way around the population) spreads through the air, so indoor environments with a bunch of strangers talking and eating with no mask on is unfortunately a pretty ideal environment for transmission. To counter this, seek out places with outdoor seating where those pesky Covid-19 particles can drift away before you or anyone else has a chance to inhale them. 

Photo: David Rowland/AFP via Getty Images

Think about ventilation

But what if it’s not possible to sit outside? “I’d be looking at ventilation,” says University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, adding that questions to keep in mind are whether windows are open and how big the space is. University of Auckland aerosol chemist Joel Rindelaub agrees, explaining that picking a location with an opened window or door can make a huge difference – even if it’s just opened a crack on both sides of a room. “That’s especially useful in winter because it’ll be warm on the inside compared to the air on the outside and due to the physics, the air is going to move from hot to cold, so it’s actually just going to expel outwards and clear the room naturally, even if it’s cracked just a little bit.”

Wiles says she’d like to see more hospitality businesses focusing on their air quality, whether that’s ensuring that a window is open or investing in a CO2 monitor. In the meantime, more customers raising queries around ventilation in the same way we might ask whether places are BYO or use free-range eggs on the menu could help to spread awareness and demand for clean indoor air when we’re eating out. “I would love people to be asking those questions,” Wiles says.

Mask up

At our current setting, orange, customers at restaurants, cafes and bars aren’t required to wear masks. But while it’s not mandatory for customers, the government’s Covid-19 website says everyone is “encouraged to wear a face mask in public indoor settings wherever it is practical”. And there’s good reason to follow that advice.

In an article on The Spinoff published last week, Rindelaub said, “I feel that people should be wearing masks whenever they’re in these high-risk environments, whenever they can. I mean, it’s obviously not going to be possible the entire time. But the more you wear it, the better you’re doing for yourself, because you’re lowering the risk.”

Wiles emphasises the importance of wearing, if possible, a well-fitted respirator mask, like a P2 or N95, which are more effective than the surgical masks and fabric masks that have been ubiquitous throughout much of the pandemic. Wearing a good mask “is a relatively small thing we can do”, she says. “At least while we’re at the peak.”

So whether you’re heading up to the till to pay, perusing the buffet selection or ducking into a cafe for a takeout morning cheese scone and coffee, putting a mask on for those few minutes could save you or someone else from being sick for a week or more. Sounds like a good trade-off in my humble opinion.

In hospo venues, masks are currently only mandatory for workers – but it’s still helpful for customers to mask up too (Image: Tina Tiller)

Dine at off-peak times

Another tip Wiles reckons is worth considering is “going early in service or later in service when there’s fewer people around”. Fewer people in the room means less chance of someone having Covid-19, and less concentration of particles in the air from people breathing. There’s something delightful about breaking food rules – so, why not opt for a late dinner like people tend to do in Spain, or eat it at 4pm as they apparently do in Norway and Finland.

Getting there

If you’re heading out to eat somewhere in your own car or by active transport, you likely don’t have too much to worry about in terms of potential Covid-19 transmission. Other modes of transport are a different story though.

In a series of articles on RNZ last week, buses, trains and ferries rated pretty poorly in terms of air quality, so wearing a respirator mask is important to reduce both the particles you’re breathing in and breathing out in those germ vessels.

Similarly, if you’re going by taxi (an even smaller germ vessel), simply wearing a respirator mask and rolling down the window to free those air particles will help to protect both you and the driver. I’ve perfected the seamless art of rolling down the window as I close the door, and I reckon you can too.

Do a RAT beforehand

Thinking of booking a fancy meal out to celebrate the end of seven days of isolation? Consider waiting a couple of days to be safe, says Wiles. “A quarter to a half of people are infectious after day seven,” she says, so “at least wait a couple of days” before dining out. If you don’t, “It’s dangerous for everyone around you, staff and other diners.” Even if you’re not at the tail-end of a Covid-19 isolation period, it could be worthwhile to take a RAT test as a precaution, especially as we now know you can be reinfected much earlier than once thought.

Be a nice diner

Patience is always a virtue when dining out, but with staffing issues and the stress of working in a pandemic, even more so at the moment. Most hospitality workers I’ve spoken to recently have noticed a positive shift in terms of treatment from customers but it can’t hurt to keep that in mind. Saying “thank you”, being understanding about wait times or mistakes, drinking responsibly, or – a more divisive suggestion – stacking plates at the end of a meal. Unless you believe in karma, being polite to hospitality workers isn’t likely to protect you or anyone else from Covid-19, but if the aim is to look after each other, it’s important to keep in mind.

Keep going!