What do COVID-19 variants mean for restaurant dining and worker safety?

“I think that all of the measures [to prevent contracting the virus] that we were doing before should still work, but they may work less well,” Liu says. “The B.1.1.7 variant, which is one of many variants that have been found, appears to be about 50 percent more transmissible, which means that it’s much easier to spread from person to person.” Liu explains that while these new variants aren’t expected to spread in new ways — say, through sewage or drinking water — they do make some activities more dangerous. “Any situation where you are taking some risk, including eating in a restaurant, where you spend some time indoors, with others without your mask on, will just become riskier.”

Before the appearance of highly contagious variants of COVID-19, indoor dining already presented a number of elevated risk factors. In addition to being transmitted from close-contact interactions where large droplets containing the virus are expelled, the virus is also carried in tiny droplets known as aerosols, which, according to information the CDC first published in September, “can linger in the air for minutes to hours.” In other indoor settings that allow constant mask-wearing, the inhalation of these particles can often be prevented or limited by the use of a high-quality mask. But eating necessitates unmasking, and when masks come off for long stretches of eating and drinking in close proximity to others, risk — to restaurant workers as well as restaurant workers as well as fellow customers — goes up dramatically. Explaining the risks of indoor dining, Dr. Russell G. Buhr, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Health, told Eater in October that “being in an enclosed space where air is recirculated means that if there are viruses suspended in those aerosols in a room, the longer you spend time unmasked in an enclosed space, the higher the risk of contracting the virus.”