For a year and half, many of us have traded takeout, delivery, and cooking at home for meals out at restaurants, which closed their indoor dining spaces to prevent the spread of COVID. But as more and more restaurants have welcomed customers back for indoor dining with COVID-19 case numbers improving and a large portion of the population vaccinated, many people in the U.S. are now back to eating inside like it’s 2019. Around 62 percent of U.S. adults say they now feel comfortable going out to eat and eating inside, according to ongoing data tracking from the Morning Consult as of Oct. 6. But virus experts are warning that dining indoors isn’t equally safe at every single restaurant—and there are some clear signs you should pick another spot to eat. Read on to find out what they say is the ultimate red flag you shouldn’t eat at a particular restaurant.
If a restaurant has poor ventilation, don’t eat there.
With COVID cases still relatively high, virus experts say you should continue to be cautious when it comes to eating indoors right now, even if you’re vaccinated. Serhat Gumrukcu, MD, an infectious disease expert and research scientist, told Best Life he still avoids eating indoors at restaurants that appear to have inadequate ventilation, and he’s not alone.
“COVID, like other airborne constituents, is more prevalent in poorly circulated air because it has been given the opportunity to accumulate,” explains Andre Lacroix, a certified indoor air specialist and co-founder of air ventilation company EZ Breathe. “Most standard air filters cannot capture and contain the particle size associated with COVID, so unless a specific air cleaner or filter has been installed specifically for this purpose—which is possible, but extremely expensive—ventilation is an excellent starting point.”
There are a few signs that a restaurant does not have good ventilation, including how it smells and what’s on the walls.
Gumrukcu says poor ventilation typically results in high humidity levels, which can make it difficult to breathe and even make you dizzy.
Another major indicator of poor ventilation is a musty, stuffy smell, according to Conor O’Flynn, a specialist in air circulation, filtration, and purification. “Usually this smell is caused when there is a large number of pollutants in the air that aren’t being pushed out by fresh, clean air,” says O’Flynn, who’s operations manager for O’Flynn Medical.
Other signs that a restaurant is not sufficiently ventilated includes mold; stains on the ceiling or walls; peeling paint or wallpaper; and pipe condensation, rust, or corrosion, according to the experts at Enviro-Master.
On the other hand, you can also look for signs of good ventilation, which will be obvious to you. “The most obvious sign of a room with good ventilation is spotting an open window that ensures continuous supply of fresh air,” Gumrukcu says.
Good ventilation can make all the difference if someone in the restaurant does have COVID.
Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician and medical expert for Impakt Fitness, says that good ventilation can both decrease the number of COVID particles in the air and decrease the number of viral particles that fall out of the air and onto surfaces, “so, even if you are exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, your viral load should be lower.”
But there are other factors to consider too, Poston notes. “In addition to ventilation, look at the closeness of the tables and the number of people dining in an enclosed space,” she says. “The more people in an enclosed space, the more important good ventilation should be.”
Dr. Fauci says good ventilation is key to avoiding breakthrough infections.
White House chief COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, also recently noted that proper ventilation will be a “key” factor when it comes to avoiding breakthrough infections this fall and winter. “What we should be doing is look at ventilation in indoor places,” he said during an Oct. 3 interview on CBS’s Face the Nation. “We know now that this [virus] is clearly spread by aerosol, and when you have something spread by aerosol, you absolutely want more ventilation, which is the reason why outdoors is always much safer than indoors. And if you are indoors, ventilation is going to be key.”
He added that if COVID-19 is spreading in your area, “even if you are vaccinated and you are in an indoor setting, a congregate setting, it just makes sense to wear a mask and to avoid high-risk situations.”