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Is indoor dining still OK under new mask guidance? Here’s what Bay Area health experts say – San Francisco Chronicle

With the delta variant prompting several Bay Area health officials to recommend everyone once again wear masks indoors, many people may be wondering if indoor dining is still a wise idea — even if they are vaccinated.

However, vaccinated people are unlikely to get seriously ill even if they do get infected.

New mask guidance arriving with no restrictions to indoor dining is creating some understandable confusion among diners. If we’re being recommended to wear a mask indoors again, where does indoor dining fit in that equation?

For one, this isn’t all that different from just a few months ago when there was a statewide mask mandate alongside indoor dining. But to get more clarity on what’s changed, The Chronicle interviewed some local public health experts to help break it down.

What exactly do these Bay Area health officials want us to do in restaurants?

San Francisco health officer Dr. Susan Philip said she’s advising people to be vigilant about masking at indoor restaurants whenever they’re near other diners or employees whose vaccination status is unknown.

“Keep a mask on while you’re ordering and when you get up to go to the restroom,” she said. “We want to encourage people without having to take the drastic step of restricting activity or closing sectors.”

The health officials urging universal indoor masking are in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties. Napa and Solano counties did not join the other seven in recommending a return to masking.

Does that mean it’s still safe to dine indoors
?

Health experts agree indoor dining isn’t safe for unvaccinated people. If every single person in a restaurant is fully vaccinated, then it’s perfectly safe, said UCSF infectious disease expert George Rutherford. The problem is it’s impossible to know if everyone is vaccinated in a public setting, and there are rare instances where a fully vaccinated person can get infected.

“It’s not as bad as it was (months ago), but it’s not as good as it was two weeks ago, either,” he said. “We need to hit a middle ground of caution.”

As with much of the pandemic, whether to dine indoors is a personal decision. Robert Siegel, a Stanford infectious disease expert, said everyone should ask themselves three questions: What is your risk? What is your level of exposure? And what is your comfort level with that level of risk and exposure?

“The level of risk is changing right now because of the fact that there’s a more contagious variant and more virus in the air,” he said.

OK, so it’s riskier to dine indoors now compared to June. But is it really that risky if I’m fully vaccinated and healthy?

No. The risk is still small that you’ll get seriously ill, public experts say. The question is, do you want to risk getting sick at all or transmitting the virus to others? If not, mask up when you’re not eating or drinking.

“It’s an added layer of protection. Why should anyone want to be infected if they could easily avoid it by wearing a mask?” said UC Berkeley infectious disease expert John Swartzberg.

Well, if it’s not so risky to vaccinated people, why is this mask guidance needed at all?

It’s a precautionary measure intended to make sure unvaccinated people wear masks and thus slow the spread of COVID-19, according to officials. Most restaurants aren’t equipped to enforce masking for unvaccinated people or even determine a diner’s vaccination status.

What if I’m a fully vaccinated older adult or immunocompromised individual?

The vaccine protects elders just as well as young adults, according to health experts. It’s a more difficult calculation for immunocompromised people, who may want to be more cautious and choose outdoor dining right now.

Should I bring my young children to indoor restaurants?

Children under 12 still can’t get vaccines. While it’s highly unlikely a kid would die from COVID-19, it’s possible young children could become sick. Swartzberg recommends avoiding indoor dining for now.

“If you have a child who can’t be vaccinated, you have to be doing the kinds of things you were doing before we had the vaccines: being careful,” he said.

I’m vaccinated and don’t want to mask up
to protect people who refuse to get vaccinated. Why should I bother?

It’s also worth masking up now for purely selfish reasons, health experts say. That’s because vaccines are still not 100% effective.

Though you probably won’t get seriously ill, if you get exposed to an infected person, there is a 1 in 20 chance you’ll develop symptoms from COVID-19, Siegel said. So if you’re in a crowded 40-seat restaurant where no one is masked, it’s possible a couple of fully vaccinated people still get infected. It’s already happening at restaurants where vaccinated workers are testing positive and forcing temporary shutdowns.

“It would be great from a public health standpoint if we instituted more restrictions, but then businesses would complain,” Siegel said. “Of all the things you could do that wouldn’t impact the economy, wearing a mask is the easiest.”

What are restaurants doing in response to this new guidance?

It’s a mix: Some restaurants are enforcing masks for employees and customers, but others aren’t making any changes since there’s no mandate.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Rutherford said it would be helpful for restaurants to have staff mask up and require vaccines for employees.

Siegel would like to see restaurants only serve vaccinated people, something a small handful of bars and venues are doing in the Bay Area. He acknowledged that it would be an incredibly controversial policy across the board, but it could be effective at getting more shots in arms. In France last week, almost 1 million people registered for vaccines after the government announced that proof of vaccine would be required in all restaurants and other nonessential places.

“You take away the croissants and that’s enough motivation to vaccinate people,” Siegel said.

Staff writer Julie Johnson contributed reporting.

Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: janelle.bitker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @janellebitker

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