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Indoor dining is the new one-night stand

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You know the feeling: Waking up and immediately wishing there were at least a couple more hours left to sleep. You rub your temples in the hope that it will stamp out the headache that’s coming on. Drops of sweat start to trickle down your forehead. Maybe your throat feels a little sore. You frantically check your phone to see if you posted anything embarrassing on social media.

In your 20s, the above description — or some part of it — describes the morning after a one-night stand. What seemed like a really good idea in that dark bar was, in actuality, a very bad idea in the cold light of day. The guilt can be overwhelming, as can that nagging feeling that there will be repercussions. Was it worth it?

These days, we’re asking ourselves “was it worth it?” about a totally different evening activity. It is the question on so many diners’ minds across the country as indoor dining ramps up again and the fear of contracting COVID-19 remains.  

In New York City, where I’m based, restaurants currently are allowed to operate at 35 percent indoor capacity. From the eyeball test, I can assure you that they are operating at a minimum of 50 percent capacity and, in most cases, somewhere north of 70 percent. Plexiglass separates tables in many chic destinations and it seems that restaurant owners have decided that’s just going to be enough. Maybe there’s some unspoken agreement with the government that it’s time to get back to normal as the rate of vaccinations continues to speed up. Or maybe restaurant owners — and their customers — just don’t care any longer.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m indoor dining-curious to be sure, but still haven’t had that first meal within the confines of four walls. I know at least 10 people who have taken the plunge and they all have lived to tell the tale, so far. It’s still a new-ish experiment, but one that seems to be going well in terms of transmission rates.

Although anxiety rarely aligns with reality, the facts about indoor dining matter. Before Gov. Andrew Cuomo shutdown indoor dining in New York City at the end of 2020, contact tracing data showed that restaurants and bars accounted for just 1.4 percent of COVID-19 spread. That put the restaurant industry behind education employees, higher education students, and health care delivery in terms of contributing to the spread of the virus. And since indoor dining restarted at the end of February, there has been no demonstrable spike in infections. The biggest cause of COVID-19 infection continues to be informal gatherings in homes and transmission within households.

As we learn more and more about the virus and the realities of what is and isn’t safe, it has become increasingly clear that many liberals — myself included — have deviated from the “trust the science” motto in some cases. The most egregious example of this is the battle over reopening schools for in-person learning. The science is clear: Kids can go back to school safely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees, as do epidemiologists and other public health experts across the country.

When it comes to indoor dining, though, there’s a social stigma that weighs heavily. No one would criticize a kid for going back to school; it’s necessary. But eating indoors is very much a choice that diners are anxious to hide from the world.

Case in point: Vaccine selfies are all the rage right now, with health care providers encouraging newly vaccinated Americans to post about it in the hope that more will come to get their shots. But when it comes to a night on the town, Eater’s Jaya Saxena argues that while people are happy to dine out, they don’t want anyone to know about it. The fear of being called a hypocrite is real. And it’s leading many who typically would chronicle every meal’s course on Instagram into a social media blackout when it comes to mealtime or, instead, to post yet another glorious shot of their homemade sourdough bread to divert attention from their COVID-crime. 

Fewer food posts aren’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m as sick of seeing stacks of pancakes drenched in Nutella as the next person. But the notion of clandestine and public COVID-19 behaviors is an important piece of the pandemic puzzle as we (hopefully) head toward herd immunity. It’s time to be honest about what we’re doing for the benefit of scientific learning and preventing community spread.

Not to be a party pooper, but I think you probably shouldn’t be doing things you wouldn’t want others to know about — especially if you’re someone who has made an educated decision, as a majority of indoor diners have.

While I’m not ready to feel that morning-after dread at the moment, I know I’ll get there soon. And when I do, I’m absolutely going to talk about it. We all end up discussing our one-night stands anyway, right? 

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.

Tags Andrew Cuomo coronavirus restrictions COVID-19 pandemic indoor dining New York

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