To learn more about best practices for diners and restaurants, The Globe spoke to Corby Kummer, executive director of the Food and Social Policy program at the Aspen Institute, lecturer at Tufts Friedman School of Food Science and Policy, and longtime restaurant critic in Boston Magazine and Furthermore.
Q. This has been a very difficult year for restaurant owners and those in the industry. Is the pain almost over?
A. Some people have said, “Hey, I vaccinated my staff, it’s over. It will be over in 45 days. “I think it won’t be over in 45 days or even 90 days. One of the reasons I raise money for training curricula day and night to do really well is because the next two months, for example, are crucial times when restaurant owners feel they can relax restrictions. You’re understandably desperate to relax the restrictions, but given Michigan has to say, “Yes, we’re open again, but we’re asking you to volunteer to stop eating indoors …” The Diner Code and the COVID Promise and the entire rigamarole is designed in such a way that restaurants do not have to close again. It is ruinous for companies to have to open and close.
Question: Let’s talk about these two guidelines: the Diner Code of Conduct and on the restaurant side, the COVID Pledge. Of course, guests must stay home if they have COVID, symptoms, or exposure. What are other important dinner behavior expectations?
A. Even if they are vaccinated, they cannot claim any special treatment. You have to wear masks. You have to deal with distancing. You have to be incredibly polite to the people who take risks. They want to tip big and take all kinds of breaks because their waiters and restaurant owners are under stress.
Q. And what do restaurants need to do to maximize safety?
A. Staff energy, time and stress must relate to mask enforcement, physical removal and ventilation. These are the key things. We emphasize all of this on that.
Q. Things like hand washing and disinfecting high contact surfaces are mentioned. But for the most part, surface disinfection was really emphasized. The CDC also updated its guidelines to reflect the low risk of surface transfer, just as “Safety First” came out.
A. We kept asking in meetings: Where are the documented cases where a menu or table was touched and COVID was received? It is possible that surface transfer will occur, but it is extremely unlikely. It is not assumed to be a main transmission route. All the news is good about it. For this reason we spent all of our time with ventilation and with what was cheap and accessible for operators with financial difficulties.
F. The principles of ventilation in the guidelines are: “Bring in as much fresh or filtered air as possible; Clean exhaust air to the outside or with highly efficient filters; Control airflow to move air up and away from people. “Again, there seems to be good news: ventilation is critical, but portable air purifiers are inexpensive and effective.
A. Air purification devices are cheap and convenient. They were $ 75; Now they’re probably over $ 100. We saw a ton of price cuts, but they’re still pretty cheap. Buy the cheapest with a HEPA filter – none of that ultraviolet stuff or any other snake oil – and make sure it ventes up. Movable plexiglass barriers ensure a safe air flow.
Q. That was a surprise to me. I thought plexiglass was primarily a hygiene theater, but it has a real use.
A. It is theater to the extent that it pretends to protect one table from another. Plexiglass is fine to make between tables if you plan to place them, but the main use for them is to block horizontal ventilation, especially if a table is next to an air intake port. Air intakes are one of the things restaurants can’t change. So you can try removing tables from that air intake opening, or you can just buy plexiglass barriers and position them to block horizontal transmission. One of my many programs that was too expensive was getting the health departments to use public health funds on COVID relief to have hours of free consultations with HVAC engineers for restaurants that want to reopen: here is a realistic one Assess your restaurant, area, ventilation system, how many portable air purifiers you will need and where. We have an online tool but it’s not as good as when an engineer comes in and gives you good advice.
Q. And what are the recommendations for distancing?
A. If you keep the distance between tables, 6 feet. I really want the CDC to revise these guidelines. Schools moved to 3 because the transmission was so low, but they didn’t change that for adults. We’ll change ours as soon as the CDC changes, but nothing has changed so far.
Question: Let’s talk about vaccinations and how it works in restaurants, both in relation to employees and in relation to customers.
A. One of the most important public health messages we want to highlight for restaurant owners is that vaccination is a top priority for all of your employees. Just do it. Give them paid time to do it. The restaurant operators I really admire have gone online and made appointments for their staff, or they have texted all of their staff: I sent you the link, did you register, when will you be vaccinated? They made it very easy and prioritized. But the guests still have to follow the rules. The vaccinated cannot get away with anything: “No, I am fine, I can take off my mask because I have been vaccinated.” Restaurants cannot bother with vaccination verification.
Question: If guests want to go out for dinner, what should they ask? What should you watch out for?
A. I think you should feel good when you see the Diner Code of Conduct and the COVID promise in the window. I would ask, “What did you do for the ventilation? What are the new steps you have taken and how is this working in your restaurant? “In New York, I ate in one of those outdoor cabanas with a large, wide opening. There isn’t the cross ventilation I would like, but one door is open. I said to the waiter, who was incredibly friendly, how do you go between dinner parties? I wanted him to say we’re going to take a big fan and let him out, but he said we’re very careful about wiping the table. I thought you should know by now that this doesn’t count.
Question: “You have put together a number of guidelines to help keep them out of date.” What does the picture look like for you in the near future?
A. We see herd immunity on Labor Day at the earliest and probably not then. There’s this triumph of having everyone vaccinated – God willing, but I think these ground rules have yet to stay in place.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.