By Molly Cerreta Smith

Dining out provides much more than simple nourishment — it’s one of the most popular ways people in Arizona get together to socialize. Proof of that lies in the sheer amount of restaurants throughout the state, as well as local restaurant industry’s economic stats. Last year alone, the industry recorded yearly sales of $13.4 billion among its 10,354 establishments. While COVID-19 has certainly challenged the industry as a whole — and changed the way restaurants can operate — local food enthusiasts are still longing to dine out and support the industry that so desperately needs a boost right now. The Arizona Restaurant Association has provided some simple safety tips for patrons choosing in-restaurant dining.

Mask Up: While everyone seems to have a stance on the “great mask debate,” the CDC has stated time and again that the virus is spread mostly “by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough, or sneeze.” Wearing a mask is not only a smart choice, it’s now mandated by many Arizona cities and individual businesses, including restaurants. When entering a restaurant, mask up and ensure restaurant staff are masked too. Naturally, once seated, the masks can come off to eat and drink.
Wash Up: Prior to going to a restaurant and “eating in,” wash those hands (everyone’s heard the 20-second rule plenty of times by now, right?) and wash them again after eating. It’s that simple.

Look Around: When choosing to dine in, guests can do some research about the steps and procedures their chosen restaurant has taken to ensure safety. And upon arrival, guests should be able to easily spot visible safety measures the restaurant is taking. For example – are staff wearing masks and gloves? Are tables spaced six feet apart and/or are there partitions between booths? Are there additional hand sanitizing stations for diners and employees? Other safety protocols to look for include single-use or newly sanitized menus; contactless menu viewing such as via menu boards or QR codes to scan then view on diners’ smartphones; sanitized or single-use condiments; and contactless payment options.

Opt Out: Governor Ducey has made it clear that being outdoors or in open spaces is a safer choice then dining in. But even Zonies that love the heat may find that a little hard to handle in the dead of summer. The good news is many local restaurants that feature large patios are already well-equipped with powerful misting systems to combat the heat and keep guests comfortable. When feasible, choosing outdoor seating is a smart choice, and in just a few short months, it will be a lot more tolerable!

Hands Off: The CDC states that “the virus may spread to hands from a contaminated surface and then to the nose or mouth, causing infection.” So when dining out, it’s important to limit touching things (and especially important to avoid touching the face after touching a surface such as dining table, chair or hostess stand.) As a good rule of thumb, always wash or sanitize hands after coming in contact with anything or anyone.

Step Back: Following the six-foot rule is another essential safety practice when dining out. Avoid restaurants where crowds of people might be gathered as they wait for a table. Choosing to stand outside and away from groups while waiting for a table is another simple safety measure diners can take.

Party of Eight (or fewer): Speaking of groups, another way to limit exposure or spread of the virus is to reduce the number of people guests come in contact with when dining out. When possible, keep group dining to a minimum. Adhering to governmental guidelines, many restaurants may even limit the number of diners per table or group to eight or fewer.

COVID-19 has changed the way the world operates in nearly every way — but it doesn’t have to stop food enthusiasts from enjoying a great meal out. With some due diligence and a little extra attention paid to safety guidelines, locals can still “dine in” at their favorite restaurants and indulge in the social pleasure of eating out with family, friends and loved ones — just maybe not all of them at once.