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Eating out in the time of Covid

After I wrote about the rules for travelling in the age of Covid a month ago, many people have asked if there are similar rules for eating out or ordering in.

Is it safe? If it is indeed okay, then what are the risks? How can we protect ourselves?


So, here are some of the things you should keep in mind.


One: Covid does not spread through food or water. It is not like cholera or dysentery. If you eat a really bad plate of Hakka noodles, the only damage that the dish will do is to your palate. Food cannot transmit Coronavirus.


If you are ordering in, then it’s time to forget all the misconceptions we had in the early days of the pandemic. You do not need to boil the curry or to zap every dish in the microwave. It will make no difference.


Two: When you tell people that food does not transmit Covid, the smart alecs among them respond by saying that while the food may be okay, what about the packaging? Do we not know that Coronavirus can live forever on paper and plastic? When you order takeaway food, they will claim, you are ingesting the virus through the cartons.


The kind of people who still say this are the same as the chaps who once told us that newspapers were carriers of Covid (they themselves had never read a newspaper but they knew this because they had received a WhatsApp forward) and the same guys who once assured us that every post demonetisation currency note contained a chip that allowed the government to track black money.


   The reality is that, while yes, you may find traces of Coronavirus on paper or plastic, that is not how infection spreads. The packaging is safe.


Three: So, why do hotels wrap crockery and cutlery in paper and plastic?


Well, because they like the idea of hygiene theatre to reassure customers. It is like that pointless temperature check they insist on at the entrance to malls. It means nothing. And it proves nothing.


   I wish hotels would dispense with this rather than encourage the misconception that table china is a disease vector or that you can get Covid from a dessert spoon. Even those ridiculous hair-nets that servers wear must go unless hoteliers actually believe that dandruff spreads Covid.


Four: So, are restaurants dangerous places?


"So, if you want to go to crowded bars, it might be wise to make out your last will and testament first."

Yes. They can be. And no matter how many paper wraps they cover their plates with, the danger remains.


   We know now that the primary means of transmission for the Coronavirus is through tiny droplets that infected people spray out when they talk or laugh loudly. Earlier, we believed that these were heavy droplets that went a few feet in the air before dropping to the ground. Research has shown that the micro-droplets, filled with Coronavirus, are not heavy, do not seem to drop at once to the floor and can travel great distances through the air.


   This is what makes some restaurants and especially bars, so dangerous.


   Most times (on the street, in offices, etc) the people around you will wear masks and will therefore not be able to spray droplets in the air.


   But restaurants are the one place where people are allowed to take off their masks. So, there is a much greater danger of infection.


Five: So, what can you do? Well, if I was the government I would shut every crowded bar, every lounge, and every nightclub where people crowd around the bar counter to get drinks. This is the perfect environment for infection. Though there are restrictions, these are routinely flouted. So, if you want to go to crowded bars, it might be wise to make out your last will and testament first.


Six: So, what’s safe? Well, it ain’t much use during the monsoon or at times of high temperature, but the best thing you can do is eat outdoors. The droplets have vast spaces to travel and are not trapped in enclosed areas. If you can’t do that, it is better to choose a place with high ceilings or an atrium.


Seven: Does social distancing help?


Yes, up to a point it does.


   The old wisdom on social distancing was that the heavy droplets could not travel more than a few feet. We know now that this is not true. They can travel far though, for every inch they travel, they contain less and less of a viral load. So, it makes sense to sit far apart. But no, it is no guarantee of safety.


Eight: So, what else can you do? Well, it depends on where you are. As I write this, the Covid situation in Delhi has been under control for many weeks. The chances of there being an infectious person at a restaurant are much lower than they are in say, Kochi or Pune. So, you have to look at the Covid situation before taking your chances.


But some rules are non-negotiable. If the tables are not far apart, if the unmasked people at the tables next to you are shouting or laughing loudly (and thus expelling more droplets), if the staff are not wearing their masks properly, if they ask you to queue up at a buffet, if you have to go and get your drink from a crowded bar where the barmen are busy and will make you wait along with unmasked guests till they can attend to your order — if any of this happens, then just get up and leave. This is an establishment run by somebody who doesn’t mind endangering your health to make a profit for himself. You would have to be a suicidal idiot to want to risk your life to help make him rich.


Nine: But eventually, it is down to you. It is unreasonable to expect people not to socialise after more than a year of the pandemic. So, of course, you will go out with friends. But choose wisely. Go out with friends who have had both their shots, with those who have immunity because they had Covid in the last few months or those who have been tested.


Do not go to a restaurant with somebody whose Covid or vaccination status you know nothing about. When you do get Covid, it won’t be the restaurant that is to blame.


   It will be your own fault.



Posted On: 28 Aug 2021 11:17 AM
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