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Safety tips to consider when returning to restaurants

As restaurants in parts of the country begin to reopen, here are some tips to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus while dining out.

WASHINGTON — As states begin to reopen businesses, many pent-up Americans are eager to escape quarantine for a meal out. 

Though it's tempting to immediately return to a pre-pandemic "normal," it's important to remember the coronavirus threat still remains, and likely will for some time. 

If you do decide to venture out and dine-in at a restaurant, there are some important things to keep in mind.

First, heed any guidance from state or local officials. 

In some areas, that might mean dining out is not yet an option. Or maybe restaurants are allowed to open, but only for service in outdoor areas. Perhaps you'll be required to wear a mask while traveling to and from the establishment. 

Additionally, be aware that the reopening of businesses does not mean the risk of contracting COVID-19 has been eliminated. Research the rate of infection in your area and consider the level of exposure you're comfortable taking on. 

This may depend on whether you or someone in your dining party has any underlying health conditions, which can complicate an infected person's recovery.  The Centers for Disease Control outlines the level of risk involved with different dining arrangements on its website. The CDC notes the "highest risk" situation right now would be dining at a restaurant where seating capacity hasn't been reduced and tables aren't spaced at least 6 feet apart. 

Once you've brushed up on the restrictions and conditions in your area, make sure you understand any restaurant-specific requirements, like booking a table in advance or limiting the size of your group. It's important to plan ahead since many business will likely be operating at limited capacity with special restrictions for the foreseeable future. 

After you've cleared your plans with local laws and any restaurant-specific restrictions, there are still some general best practices to keep in mind, according to Larry Lynch, Senior Vice President of Science and Industry at the National Restaurant Association, which released reopening guidance for restaurants in April.

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He suggests diners continue to heed virus prevention measures once they reach the restaurant. 

"Social distancing and handwashing, bar none, are the two most important things that you can do to protect yourself and protect others from the virus," he explained.  

Here are three tips Lynch suggests to protect yourself, other diners and restaurant staff members.  

1. Stay home if you're not feeling well

Even if your symptoms seem minor, do not go to a restaurant if you're feeling sick. 

2. Wash your hands frequently 

Handwashing continues to be a critical weapon in the battle against the coronavirus, and it's especially important when eating. Lynch suggests washing your hands before arriving at the restaurant and again before eating. 

3. See what safety procedures are in place

Don't be afraid to ask staff members or management what the restaurant is doing to stop the spread of the virus. Your server and other staff members should be wearing a mask. The restaurant should limit the use of shared items like menus and condiments. 

Gloves, frequent hand washing and social distancing are other measures that demonstrate the establishment is serious about safety. Crowds congregated in waiting areas or tables too close together are signs to stay away. 

"Ask the restaurateur, 'How frequently are the employees washing their hands? What is your handwashing protocol? What is your distancing protocol?' It's a different time. You know, the idea behind dining, it used to be very romantic, fun evening, that could still be the case, but you can certainly ask them what they are doing to make it better," he said.