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Should you wear a mask to a restaurant? And other dining safety questions, answered

Not sure what to expect when going to a restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic? We asked experts about best practices.

On May 4, Florida restaurants began welcoming back diners with limited capacity and social distancing measures. Though some local restaurant owners thought guests may be slow to return, this past week has proved anything but: Diners are increasingly going out to restaurants — in groups, on dates, with their families — all across the Tampa Bay area.

Related: Tampa Bay restaurants are opening and hiring. Owners say they're ready for more.

What does dining out safely right now look like? Should restaurant servers wear masks? Should diners? Experts and health professionals say yes to both.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends everyone wear face coverings in public settings. And Florida guidelines still recommend that residents practice social distancing — which means maintaining at least six feet of distance from people not in your household — to help curb transmission of the coronavirus.

But state guidelines for restaurants and diners specifically are limited. Wearing a mask to a restaurant is not currently required. Many restaurants, but not all, are requiring their service and kitchen staffs to wear masks. A smaller percentage are requiring staff to wear gloves. Some have encouraged diners to wear masks, with mixed results.

The thing is, there is no rulebook when it comes to safe restaurant reopening practices.

Related: Restaurants reopened May 4. Here's what that looked like.

So what should Tampa Bay diners do? We spoke with two experts — Dr. Sally Alrabaa, an associate professor of medicine in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University of South Florida; and Patricia Rossi, a local civility expert and author — for some safety tips and best etiquette practices when dining out.

Let’s start with the basics: How safe is it to eat at a restaurant right now?

“Safety is a relative term,” Alrabaa said. “Any activity that involves close contact with people outside the home bring(s) some risk. This risk may be ‘acceptable’ to someone young and healthy but unacceptable to someone older or (in) poor health.”

Is outdoor seating safer than indoor seating?

Yes, said Alrabaa: "Moving air and fans also help, as does sitting outside, especially if it is sunny outside, which (helps to) kill viruses in general.

Should I wear a mask to a restaurant?

“Yes, (it’s) best to wear a mask. This will limit the person’s respiratory secretions from landing on other people, and vice versa," Alrabaa said. “If someone is wearing a mask, they are being courteous. So it is (a) good practice to do this (for) each other. In a sense it is everyone keeping their germs to themselves.”

Rossi agreed: “If you’re going to breathe or talk, or plan on ever speaking or coughing, you need to wear a mask.”

Server Renee Dubuque hustles an order of drinks to an outdoor dining area while working a lunch shift at FrenchyÕs Rockaway Grill on Monday, May 4, 2020, on Clearwater Beach. The restaurant is among Pinellas County restaurants that reopened dining areas on Monday, with the restriction that they must stay at 25 percent of maximum capacity. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

When wearing a mask to a restaurant, when do I take it off and when do I put it back on?

“Keep it on as long as you are not eating,” said Alrabaa. When the food arrives, diners should remove the mask and place it in a bag or purse, she said. After they are done with their meal, Alrabaa said guests should put the mask back on.

How and where you touch the mask is also important, Alrabaa said. She recommended diners “remove it from the back of the head and not touch the outer front surface” of the mask.

Related: I ate at a restaurant after the reopening. We're a long way from normal.

What do I do with the mask when I take it off?

"Never put it on the table or on the chair or any surface that a person is going to be exposed to,” Rossi said. “You can bring a Ziploc bag and leave it open, so it’s breathable, or a paper bag, and then just put it in your briefcase or your purse. If you don’t have anything like that with you, you could just put it in your lap with the napkin over it.”

Should I be worried if my server isn’t wearing a mask?

Both Rossi and Alrabaa said they would be hesitant about eating at a restaurant where the staff coming into contact with customers are not wearing face coverings.

Naomi Mack, 33, a server at Daily Eats delivers menus to patrons Monday, May 4, 2020 in Tampa. Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered that restaurants can open at 25% starting Monday. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

What other safety measures should I take while eating at a restaurant?

Diners should try to avoid touching their face, nose, mouth and eyes, Alrabaa said. She also recommended diners practice “obsessive hand washing and sanitizing" as often as possible.

“Before you put your mask back on, you’ve got to wash your hands,” said Rossi. “You’ve touched flatware, you’ve touched the table, you know, you touch things. Keys, phones, computers — there should be nothing on the table. You don’t want to touch that and then touch your mask.”

What about washing my mask, if it’s made of cloth or other washable material?

“You treat it just like your under-drawers,” Rossi said. “You wear them once and you wash them.”

Is it safe for me to dine with people I don’t live with?

According to Alrabaa: “There is a risk. If a young healthy person goes out and meets other people at restaurants and lives with older parents or sick family members, they should be very careful to keep a distance from them at all times.”

Lunch customers dine outside of Parkshore Grill, Beach Drive, St. Petersburg, Monday, May 4, 2020. The business had been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The business reopened Monday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Should I tell the person I’m meeting I plan on wearing a mask?

Yes, Rossi said: “I always tell my side before so that there are no surprises.”

Can I go on a date with someone to a restaurant? Can I get closer than six feet?

If it’s someone you meet on Tinder or Bumble and you’re going to meet up, I think that I would make sure that I’m following all guidelines,” Rossi said. “It’s just respectful — not only to yourself but to the other people in your world that you come into contact with.”

Specifically, make sure you’re the full six feet apart, she said.

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