With lockdown restrictions easing throughout the UK many of us are looking forward to rejuvenating our social lives and heading out to our local cafe or favourite restaurant.

But with COVID-19 still a very real and present threat to public health, what can we do to reduce the risk of infection? And what should venues be doing to keep us safe?

Understanding The Risk

COVID-19 is an infectious disease spread directly from person to person. The virus is carried in tiny droplets from an infected person’s breath, cough or sneeze. If the droplets come into contact with another person’s eyes or are breathed in, that person may develop the disease.

Those droplets can also fall onto surfaces, where the virus can survive for up to 72 hours. If someone touches these surfaces, then touches their face, they can also become infected.

Eating out has led to several clusters

We know that people around the world have become infected while eating out.

Back in late January and early February, three clusters of COVID-19 cases in China were linked to a single restaurant. A total of 10 people became ill over the next three weeks.

The air-conditioning had apparently carried contaminated droplets from a single infectious diner to nearby tables. This prompted the researchers to recommend restaurants increase their natural ventilation and sit customers at tables further apart.

In Queensland, Australia more than 20 people connected with a private birthday party at a Sunshine Coast restaurant contracted the virus. Four were staff, the rest guests. The source of infection isn’t known.

Other outbreaks have been linked with restaurants in Hawaii, Los Angeles and a fast food restaurant in Melbourne.

The path to infection

Let’s consider the risk of infection from the moment you arrive at a restaurant or cafe.

When you open the door, you may have to put your hand on a door handle. If that handle has been touched by a person while infectious, they may leave behind thousands of individual virus particles. If you then touch your face, you run the risk of the virus entering your body and establishing an infection.

If you avoid the doorknob, you may pick up the virus when you take your seat at the table, by touching the chair or the table top. Again, if you touch your face, you are risking infection. Similarly, you risk exposure by touching the menu or the cutlery.

When the waiter comes to take your order, they will likely enter your breathing space. This is usually considered to be a circular zone of about 1.5 metres around your body.

If the waiter is infected but not yet showing symptoms, you may be exposed to droplets containing the virus on their breath or the breath may contaminate the tableware in front of you.

Now, your food is delivered and there’s good news. The virus is not transmitted through food.

However if the venue has air-conditioning it can help the virus to travel through the air from an infected person seated several feet away.

On a quick trip to the bathroom, you again open yourself to the risk of infection by touching the door and other surfaces. However, this trip allows you to take one very important step to prevent infection – washing your hands with soap, taking care to hum Happy Birthday twice as you scrub and rinse.

Don’t forget to to dry your hands thoroughly! Wet hands are much more likely to pick up microbes, so you may re-contaminate your hands as you open the door and go back to your table.

When it’s time to pay your bill you might be worried that handling cash could be a source of infection. While there were concerns about this initially, there is no evidence to date of any cases linked to handling money. Just in case – use your credit card, but remember there’s a possibility of transfer when your fingers tips type in your PIN.

Even when it’s time to leave there are hazards to avoid like getting into a jam with other people in the doorway on your way out.

How can I protect myself?

If all that information hasn’t put you off going out to eat (and we hope it hasn’t) there are some extra steps you can take to protect yourself as venues reopen.

Sanitise your hands using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser after touching surfaces, handling menus, before eating and after visiting the bathroom. Avoid touching your face, including wiping your eyes or licking food off your fingers. If you must touch your face, use hand sanitiser first.

Maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from other people, unless they are people you share close contact with.

Sit outside if you can. Direct transmission is much less likely outdoors.

Sit outside whenever possible.

Finally, whenever possible use a credit or debit card with a contactless transaction, rather than having to enter a PIN.

To avoid infecting other people, stay home if you have any symptoms or suspect you might have been in contact with a person who has tested positive.

What should cafes and restaurants be doing?

As well as being mindful of your own actions you should also consider if the venue is taking the right steps to protect your health. Here are some signs to look out for.

First, tables need to be spaced at reasonable distances. This spacing will reduce the number of people in the venue at the same time. This allows patrons to be outside each-others’ 1.5-metre breathing zones and also reduces the potential effect of air conditioning.

Some venues in other countries are using plastic screens to separate diners to try to reduce the risk of person-to-person spread. This should not be used as a substitute for correct distancing if there is sufficient space.

Tables and chairs should be sanitised, using a chemical sanitiser such as diluted bleach, between patrons.

Cutlery and tableware cannot be left ready on the table. They should be stored to prevent contamination in the kitchen and brought to the patron with their meal. Afterward, they need to be cleaned and sanitised as usual.

Disposable cutlery should never be left out for self-service; it should only be provided with food or on request.

All frequently touched surfaces must be regularly sanitised – including door handles, light switches, hand rails, PIN pads and touch screens. In the kitchen this includes taps, refrigerator and freezer doors.

Staff should maintain safe distances from patrons at all times and must never be allowed to work if they have respiratory symptoms or are suspected to have had contact with a COVID-19 positive person.

Be vigilant

Coronavirus cases in most parts of the UK are coming down. So, the chance of coming into contact with an infectious person is reducing which is why restrictions are now gradually being lifted. However, given the potential health impact of contracting COVID-19 we shouldn’t become complacent. We need to continue to take precautions to reduce the risk of infection especially as the lockdown restrictions are eased.

Check out How to Stay Safe in a Hotel, Caravan or Rental Home.

Written by Lisa Bricknell, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health, CQ University Australia. Illustrations by Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND. This article is republished from The Conversation.