Are restaurants required to notify the public about positive cases? Is it cool to cancel a dinner reservation right now? We answer those questions and more.

The simple pleasure of dining out in 2020 is now fraught with anxiety and new rules around social distancing and mask-wearing. In addition, restaurant workers are coping with the inherent risks of the job and having to enforce safety regulations on a not-always-compliant public.  Below, we answer some of the most pressing questions about dining out while keeping yourself and employees safe amid rising COVID-19 infection rates. Let this be your guide on proper customer etiquette at your favorite restaurants.

If you still don’t feel comfortable dining in public at your favorite restaurant, that’s OK, too. Delivery and carryout options are also great ways to safely support local restaurants and their employees while eating an expertly curated meal or enjoying a cocktail from the comfort and safety of your own couch.

To mask or not to mask?

Short answer: Always wear your mask when dining out, except when seated at your table. Per Gov. Mike DeWine’s mask order, face coverings are mandated indoors (outside the home) and outdoors when unable to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet. This means from the moment you get into a ride-share up until you sit down at a table, it is recommended that you wear a mask. 

To be courteous of other guests and restaurant staff, wear a mask when waiting to be seated at a table, when you are ordering in person, picking up takeout and even when you are going to the bathroom. A good rule of thumb is that if there is a chance you will be within 6 feet of another person not at your table, you should wear a mask. 

Whom should I be dining with?

Since dining is done in close contact with others and without masks, it is recommended that you only dine with members of your household or the small circle of people with whom you have kept in-person contact. In his July 30 press conference Gov. DeWine stressed the need to keep in-person social circles small–family members and close friends–especially when engaging in activities without masks in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Equally important: do not go out to eat during a recommended self-quarantine period if you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or if you have recently been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. Doing so and being out in public without a mask while you are eating and drinking means you could be putting other restaurant patrons and employees at increased risk of contracting the disease.

What should I do when a restaurant that I dined at recently announces a confirmed case of COVID-19 among its staff or customers?

Don’t panic. As long as you have followed the proper social distancing and mask protocols, there is no need to be tested or to self-quarantine. First, you should know that when a restaurant employee tests positive for COVID-19 it is not required that the restaurant notify the public. Still, some restaurants have decided to share this information with their patrons through various means. 

What does the city’s public health department do if a restaurant reports a positive case of COVID-19?

Restaurants are required to notify Columbus Public Health of a positive case of COVID-19. The department will follow up with contract tracing efforts when informed of a confirmed case by a restaurant. Health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts says the department will conduct interviews with the restaurant and its employees to determine who may have been in close contact with the infected person. Close contact is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being within 6 feet of someone infected with coronavirus for 15 minutes. “There’s a risk in everything you do. Every time you walk out of your house you’re putting yourself at risk, but the science is clear that you’re at the greatest risk in how we identify close contact,” Roberts says. 

Why aren’t restaurants closing after a confirmed case of COVID-19?

Some restaurants have opted to close for various amounts of time once an employee has tested positive for coronavirus, citing a desire to conduct a deep clean of their facilities. However, closing after a confirmed positive case is not required nor recommended by the state or Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

While some restaurants have decided to hire outside companies to sanitize their facilities, others, such as Northstar Cafe (which announced cases among staff members in an Instagram post earlier this month), have ramped up their routine, in-house cleaning practices without shutting down. “[We] have gone above and beyond Ohio’s sanitizing and safety requirements, including: frequent and thorough cleaning and sanitizing throughout the day and every night,” the local cafe chain said in a written statement to Columbus Monthly.

What should I do if I see restaurant workers without a mask on?

First, know that while face masks are broadly mandated for all employees, there are a few exceptions. One such exception is if there is “a functional (practical) reason for an employee not to wear a facial covering in the workplace,” according to Ohio restaurant guidelines. 

OH Pizza and Brew addressed this matter in a Facebook post earlier this month, stating that some employees forgo masks because of hot temperatures, medical exemptions and a need to communicate. The Downtown eatery wrote, “Adding masks to an already abnormally loud environment will only add to the immediate risks due to improper communication,” in the online post.

However, if you feel as though any local restaurant or other business is blatantly disregarding public health guidelines you can fill out a COVID-19 Responsible Restart Ohio Complaint Intake Form with Franklin County’s health department, or contact the Columbus health department directly by calling in a complaint to 614-645-1519. Health commissioner Roberts says the department has conducted more than 3,200 public health compliance checks as of early August to ensure businesses are following the proper precautions.

I have a dinner reservation. Is it OK to skip it if my plans change?

If you have a dinner reservation and know you can’t make it, call the restaurant immediately to cancel. While reservation no-shows have always been a restaurant taboo, this is especially the case now that restaurants increasingly prefer reservations for safety reasons and are operating under strict capacity limitations imposed by the pandemic. This means each no-show is a larger percentage of the restaurant’s total capacity.

For example, Alqueria Farmhouse Kitchen on King Avenue had its seating capacity sliced in half because of public health guidelines, according to co-owner Patrick Marker. At Alqueria, a diner skipping out on a reservation costs the restaurant an eighth of its capacity. 

What should I be tipping? Should I tip on a carryout or delivery order?

The traditional, unwritten rule of tipping 20 percent of your meal’s total still stands; however, you may want to consider being more generous with tipping when you dine out including when ordering takeout or delivery. It is no secret that servers, bartenders and other service industry employees make their living off tips from customers. In the age of COVID-19, capacity limits and a mandated 10 p.m. last call for alcohol in Ohio have severely restricted the number of customers restaurants can serve in-house, and guidelines around self-quarantining may curb the hours they work. Like many, restaurant workers are struggling to make ends meet.