COVID-19 has changed the way we do pretty much everything, including eating out. Now that many restaurants have reopened dine-in options, with socially distanced tables inside or outdoors, a new problem presents itself: How do you wear a mask while eating?
Wearing a face mask has become a requirement in most states when entering most businesses, and for good reason. But what do you do with that mask when it’s time to take a bite? Do you place it on the table? Store it in your purse until you’re ready to leave? Do you put the mask back on when speaking to servers? And do you put it on between each bite?
As we’re all navigating this new normal, the questions are endless and understandable. HuffPost consulted doctors to get their best suggestions.
When you enter a restaurant, your initial thought may be to head to the restroom to wash your hands. Though generally nothing can replace hand-washing with soap and water, a few doctors suggest staying seated at your table and utilizing sanitizer in this situation.
Heading to the restroom means walking back through the restaurant to your table ― with all the possibilities for recontamination ― and then taking your mask off.
Instead, “use a personal hand sanitizer that you bring along with you [and] handle the mask by its straps to avoid possible transfer between the mask and your hands,” said internal medicine physician Vivek Cherian.
So now that you’ve safely removed your mask by the ear straps, the million-dollar question is: Where do you actually place it? Even doctors have varying suggestions, but they all agree on one thing: Putting your mask on the table is a no-no.
“When you are eating at a restaurant, the last place you want to put the mask after you remove it is on the table,” Cherian said.
“COVID is transmitted via respiratory droplets, which can occur even when people are talking,” he explained. “So just having a simple conversation with your friend and family can cause droplets to land on and contaminate your mask.”
Cherian suggested that in addition to hand sanitizer, diners should bring a clean, breathable container, like a paper bag or even a small mesh laundry bag, to put the mask in. This will keep the mask away from possible contaminants while allowing it to dry.
“Cloth masks lose their effectiveness if they are damp, even from regular breathing,” he said, adding that storing the mask inside your pocket can lead to even more moisture, especially if you’re sweating.
What if you don’t have any paper bags or forgot to bring a mesh bag? Aaron Rossi, a doctor and CEO of Reditus Laboratories, which has partnered with the state of Illinois to provide COVID-19 testing, has another solution.
“I would advise people to utilize the elasticity in masks to roll them up on one’s wrist while dining,” he said, which will help prevent exposure to other contaminants.
Placing both of the elastic straps around your wrist, with the inside of the mask (the part that comes in contact with your mouth) folded inward on itself, means you’re essentially wearing the mask like a bracelet. Rossi said not only does this keep the inside of the mask less contaminated, but it also leaves the mask accessible if you need to put it back on quickly, particularly when talking with a server.
The doctors we spoke with advise against too much handling of the mask, which can contaminate it as well as other surfaces it comes in contact with.
Cherian said, “Constantly putting the mask on and off between bites can actually increase the risk of spreading COVID, as you increase the [possibility] of spreading the virus from your mask to your hands and subsequently spreading it around.” He suggested that a mask be worn right up until you’re ready to eat and only placed back on when you’re leaving the restaurant.
Sometimes the server may approach the table when your mask is off.
“The safest way to protect a server, in addition to maintaining a six-foot distance, would be for the diner to also have their mask on,” Cherian said. But he added, “This involves additional risks to the diner as putting the mask on and off can increase the risk of spreading COVID from your mask to your hands.”
Clearly, you should try to limit the number of times the server must return to the table. Maybe you don’t really need more olive oil.
Another idea from Cherian: Carry a second, sanitized mask as a backup. Slip this one on ― handling the ear straps with clean hands ― instead of reaching for the mask that’s already been worn and possibly contaminated.
As far as how much risk the servers face, there’s no definitive answer, but Kent New, who has a Ph.D. in virology, said the risk is probably low. “Since the server is wearing a mask and standing, listening to seated patrons, the level of risk to the server is unknown but likely minimal,” New said.
Rossi also agrees that “the risk of transmission and infection for both servers and patrons is minimal” when staff wears masks and sustained contact is limited to a few minutes.
Face mask accessories like chains and lanyards, similar to eyeglass chains, are becoming increasingly popular as they allow the mask to hang from your neck when not in use. But despite their convenience, you risk exposing the inside of your mask to the coronavirus.
“These chains don’t prevent your mask from being contaminated if it is pulled away from your nose and mouth,” New said.
The same concern arises if you pull your mask down on your chin or leave it dangling from one ear.
“Allowing the inside of the mask to be exposed to air droplets breathed out by others defeats the purpose of wearing the mask. You are better off putting it away until you are finished eating,” New said.
And when you’ve finished your meal, the recommendation is to go through the same routine as when you took off the mask: First sanitize your hands and then use the ear straps to place the mask over your nose and mouth.
Whatever method you choose for storing your mask while eating, New added that the biggest risk comes not from it but from those you’re eating with.
“The most important thing when dining out is to make sure the people you are eating with have not been exposed to COVID-19 recently,” he said. “You will be most at risk of exposure from the people you are dining with.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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