The documented dangers of dining out during COVID-19

If you had told me a year ago that I would be spending so much of 2020 defending the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I never would have believed you. But here I am, ready to do just that, yet again…

I’ve said it before, but we have to keep in mind that the CDC is still one of the world’s most preeminent sources for reliable, up-to-date health information. My view and their views don’t always meet. But during times of crises, they do know their stuff.

As you all know, this pandemic is still very much alive and kicking. And our behavior is going to have a direct impact on just how long the virus sticks around and affects every aspect of our day-to-day—from job security all the way to enjoying a meal at a restaurant.

So, today, let’s take a closer look at the latter, in particular…

Restaurants more than double the risk

Many cities’ economies—including my own here in NYC—rely on revenue from bars and restaurants to thrive. (Just as their patrons rely on these establishments to boost their quality of life.)

So from an economic perspective, I can absolutely understand the fiery hoops that cities are jumping through in order to keep their restaurants open.

But… at what cost? Are they really safe in the age of COVID-19?

This is a question that I get asked a lot—at least 20 times each week, to be exact. So, let’s take a closer look…

As part of a very recent study, researchers compared 154 symptomatic COVID-positive adults with 160 adults who tested negative. Both groups were age-, sex-, and location-matched.

The researchers asked them about their precautions and exposure activities, like mask-wearing, any small or large gatherings they may have attended in someone’s home, shopping, church visits, public transportation use, and any times they may have visited an office, salon, gym, bar, or coffee shop.

The subjects responded on a scale of one (“never”) to five (“always”). And while both groups reported a similar number of exposures, there were some notable differences.

Namely, among people who tested positive, 42 percent reported close contact with an infected individual—versus only 14 percent of those who tested negative—more than half of which were family members. (Which, of course, is not surprising at all.)

But there’s more: People who tested positive for COVID-19 were also 2.4 times more likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks prior. And COVID-positive people who hadn’t had contact with an infected individual were nearly three times as likely to have dined at a restaurant… and four times as likely to have gone to a bar or a café.

Stay masked, and start cooking

There are some other relevant findings here, too: Diners who tested positive for COVID-19 were also less likely to report that their fellow patrons were following recommended safety guidelines, like mask-wearing and social distancing.

And it’s worth noting that, among positive subjects, more than 70 percent reported always wearing a mask in public during the two weeks prior—roughly the same percentage as the COVID-negative subjects. Which just goes to show you that what the people around you are doing matters, too.

But of course, bars and restaurants present a unique set of risks in this department. For one thing, masks can’t be worn while eating and drinking—whereas you can stay continuously masked while shopping or performing other indoor activities.

Secondly, most people go to a restaurant and take off their mask as soon as they sit down, only putting it back on when they leave. This is bending the rules by itself, as the CDC’s safety recommendations urge patrons to stay masked unless actually eating or drinking.

The researchers’ conclusion: “Implementing safe practices to reduce exposures to SARS-CoV-2 during on-site eating and drinking should be considered to protect customers, employees, and communities and slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Which is all well and good… if you could actually count on businesses and patrons to follow these safety practices in the first place.

The fact of the matter is, diners don’t have nearly enough control over any of these moving parts to guarantee a truly safe experience at the restaurants they visit. And unfortunately, it’s made these establishments a key factor behind the spread of COVID-19—as noted by the CDC.

Now, I should point out that this study didn’t distinguish between indoor or outdoor seating. But even if outdoor dining is safer—and that’s a big “if”—with temperatures on their way down for the season, truly alfresco dining won’t be an option much longer anyway.

So I will leave you today with one simple recommendation: Do what I do, and cook at home.

Not handy in the kitchen? No problem. You can watch my new show, Cooking with Dr. Fred on Instagram TV, @drfrednyc, and on my YouTube channel, The Dr. Fred Show.

P.S. Don’t forget to continue supporting your immune system, especially as we head into another cold and flu—and coronavirus—season. I outline all of my top immune health recommendations in my Complete Guide to Year-Round Immunity. To learn more about this comprehensive report, click here now!


“Restaurants May Be Key Component to COVID-19 Spread.” Medscape Medical News, 09/15/2020. (