• Many schools, offices, conferences have been cancelled in an effort to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus
  • Guidance for restaurants and patrons varies widely by state and jurisdiction.
  • Experts told Business Insider people at higher risk for coronavirus should eat in, and even healthy people should recognise going out isn't risk-free. 
  • If you must eat out, choose places that aren't crowded and where you won't be seated closely together.  
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As people stage home offices, cancel social events, avoid public transportation, and otherwise practice social distancing in an effort to reduce the chances of contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus, many are wondering, "Can we at least go out to eat?" 

The answer, experts say, depends. Your own vulnerabilities to the disease, where you live, and the restaurant you're considering going to itself all matter. Plus, your responsibilities to your community play a role in the answer, too. 

"So much of this is situation specific," Lauren Dunning, a director for the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, who was most recently at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health focusing on chronic and infectious diseases.

Here, experts break down exactly what you should consider before going out to eat. 

People over 50 shouldn't eat out, one expert said

Older adults and those with underlying health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases, are especially vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 and getting seriously ill from it. 

"I would advise those that are above 50 and/or have pre-existing health conditions to avoid going out to eat altogether," Amit Malik, former clinical director of operations for various hospitals and health systems including New York Presbyterian Hospital, told Insider. 

That doesn't mean healthy, young people should rush out for every meal, though. "If you're going out to eat, you are putting yourself at risk, period," Malik said, because the virus spreads when people are in close quarters, which outside of a pandemic, are the appeal of restaurants and bars. 

"It's recommended for everyone, regardless of age and health status, to avoid being in large crowded places for the foreseeable future," Malik said, and to, of course, wash and dry your hands frequently and thoroughly

Choose where you dine wisely

If you do choose to go out to eat, where you go matters.

Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, clinical assistant professor at University of Tennessee Erlanger and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, suggested people ask: How many people will be there? How close will you be to all of those people? How well ventilated is the space or how much people can move around?

"The more people, the more closely packed, and the more poorly ventilated the space, you can imagine that's a bad situation," she said. On the other hand, she said, going to an uncrowded, open-air restaurant with a friend or two is a lower risk. 

Many cities have implemented capacity limits to eliminate the possibility of walking into a crowded restaurant altogether. New York City, for one, has limited indoor capacity to 50% or less at venues including bars and restaurants that seat under 500 people. Venues higher than that capacity have been ordered to close.

But the rules vary by jurisdiction and much is left up to restaurants and individual patrons. If you live somewhere that hasn't instituted similar guidelines, Malik suggested avoiding places where groups of people are huddled around the bar or high-tops, as well as restaurants that have waiting areas where patrons are hanging out while they wait for their table to be prepared. 

"It's wise at this time to avoid being in close contact with strangers for any extended period of time given the facts about how this virus is spread," he said. 

Not all social distancing shields are created equal

Some restaurants are getting creative with their set-ups to encourage dining at a distance.

In Amsterdam, for example, one restaurant built small greenhouses on its waterfront to physically separate outdoor diners. A café in Germany went with a more whimsical solution: handing out hats with pool noodles attached to ensure that customers sit at a safe distance.

Indoor dining poses more of a challenge, but in France, some restaurants are investing in lampshade-like plastic shields that cover individual patrons while they eat. Plastic partitions also make it possible for friends to sit at the same table while social distancing.

But not all solutions have been effective; namely, plastic face shields failed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at a hotel in Switzerland. Swiss health officials, echoed by the World Health Organisation and Dr. Anthony Fauci, said that, when in doubt, masks and social distancing are the best measures you can take to stay healthy. 

You probably won't get Covid-19 from food

There's currently little to no evidence suggesting you can contract the coronavirus from handling or consuming food or drinks. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, so it's primarily spread through droplets released when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks.

Still, you should stick with restaurants you trust to be smart about food safety.

"I'd recommend avoiding restaurants that have poor ratings from food inspections — those are restaurants you'd want to avoid anyway," Sue Ann Bell, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and expert on the health effects of disasters, told Insider.

The restaurant industry is taking its own precautions to help keep customers and staff safe, with some adding hand-sanitising stations or signs reminding people to wash their hands and stay home if they're sick.

"Restaurants take care and concern practicing safe food preparation and handling under normal circumstances," Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry for the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement to Insider. "State and local food codes establish strict safe food handling requirements for restaurants, and operators are being proactive by stepping up existing cleaning and sanitation procedures."

Consider your community and other options  

As with all coronavirus prevention protocols, it's not just about keeping yourself safe, it's about keeping your neighbors and community healthy too, Dunning stressed. 

So, on the one hand that may mean healthy young people should consider eating in to avoid being a vector of illness for someone more vulnerable; but on the other hand it could mean patronising a local establishment to help lower-wage workers continue to get their paychecks.

If you're vulnerable to the illness or would rather stay in, you can still help your community by ordering from a favorite restaurant through a service like Uber Eats, Bell said. Or, Dunning suggested, call ahead to see if you can pick something up to eat at home or buy a gift certificate from the joint to use later. 

"We all want to do our part," Dunning said.