After months of careful quarantine, the infectious disease expert was ready to go out to dinner.
At Citron in Baltimore County last Friday, Dr. Morgan Katz, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University, viewed servers wearing masks and gloves. Bottles of hospital-grade hand sanitizer sat on tables, spaced six feet apart along the patio overlooking Quarry Lake.
“I actually was very pleasantly surprised at how safe I felt at an outdoor restaurant,” she said.
As Maryland and other states across the country begin to reopen following months of coronavirus-related closures, cleanliness is at top of mind for guests and workers. While state guidelines offer certain precautions like requiring employees to wear masks and keeping dining rooms at half their usual capacity — some restaurant owners go even further.
At Citron, staff take temperatures of all workers and guests upon arrival. “The guests have found that incredibly reassuring,” said owner Susan Levine. “They have a sense of comfort knowing that no one’s coming in with a fever.”
Temperature taking is also the norm for guests and staff at Aldo’s in Little Italy. Employees disinfect tables between each use with a fogging machine that sprays hypochlorus acid, made from table salt and electrolyzed water. Chef and owner Sergio Vitale is planning to install HEPA filters with disinfecting UV lights to improve indoor ventilation.
“The restaurant industry may be the last community for whom Covid is still on our minds,” said Vitale, an early advocate of closing streets to allow outdoor dining. “It’s the first thing I wake up with and the last thing I go to bed with.”
Earlier this month, Visit Baltimore announced a partnership with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council to help restaurants and other facilities boost their COVID-19 cleanliness; places that follow GBAC’s cleaning and disinfecting protocols can earn special accreditation from the group.
“We hope this provides peace of mind to employees and visitors moving forward,” Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said in a statement.
For diners looking to protect themselves, Katz has the following recommendations.
Eat outside. “Especially in those warmer months when we can actually enjoy outdoor dining, I would definitely recommend trying to opt for outdoor dining situations when possible.”
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Don’t get too close. “I think spacing of the tables is huge,” Katz said. “I definitely would make sure that you have a diameter of six feet on either side of your table.” Keep a distance from other diners, and avoid walking through crowded bar areas or getting close to others in line. “Be aware of anytime you’re close to another individual that is a potential point of transmission.”
Mask wearing should be the norm. “I really think we should continue to enforce wearing that anytime we’re in public places, other than when we’re actively eating at a table,” Katz said.
Avoid the bar. Indoor dining is already a higher risk because of the ventilation issues, Katz said. In addition, bar areas can be harder places to practice social distancing. “Some of the restaurants can’t control how many people are sitting at a bar and how close they sit, you can start to see larger groups forming. It’s hard to keep the bartender far away from the person ordering at the bar.”
Choose your dining companions carefully. “That is going to be your highest risk transmission point — the other people you’re dining with,” Katz said. “It’s probably not going to be someone you pass by in the restaurant.”
When restaurants do have a staff member test positive for COVID-19, it’s best for owners to shut down completely. Katz said they should remain closed for at least 10-14 days while staff get tested — to ensure it’s not a widespread outbreak. “Because of the rate of asymptomatic carriage we’ve seen, really, throughout all populations, not just in restaurant staff, I think that is best practice.”
That’s what the owners of Wicked Sisters in Hampden opted to do earlier this month after one worker tested positive for the virus. They notified guests via Instagram, too. “We just felt like we should be upfront about it,” said co-owner Charlie Gjerde. “This is part of our world now.” Everyone else on staff, including Gjerde, tested negative for the virus. The restaurant has since reopened for outdoor dining.