Here's what it's like to go out to eat during a pandemic

Dining out for lunch at a local restaurant is possible again after some states start to lift stay-at-home orders.
Megan Leonhardt | CNBC

On Saturday, May 30, I ate in a restaurant for the first time in nearly three months, when my family and I visited a local farm-to-table restaurant in Ohio. Let the trumpets sound!

Going out to eat isn't usually a big event, but with the stay-at-home orders prompted by Covid-19, it felt monumental. "Joy to the World" played in my head on repeat. The last time I had dined in a restaurant was on March 7th, about a week before bars and restaurants were told to close in an effort to "flatten the curve."

While some parts of the country still weren't allowing dine-in options, Ohio lifted restrictions for patio dining on May 15 and allowed residents to start dining inside restaurants again on May 21, with limitations on capacity.  

After seeing several restaurants on the local news talk about putting up barriers between diners and taking out tables to create safe distances, as well as ordering masks for every single employee and creating new hand-washing procedures, it felt like most establishments had their safety protocols sorted and streamlined.

I was ready to try it for myself. Here's what the experience was like. 

Getting ready to dine out again

My family decided to try dining on the patio of a local restaurant to take advantage of the weekend's promise of sunshine and warm temperatures. We picked The Farmer's Table, which opened at the end of January and specializes in fresh, locally sourced dishes, from Polish staples like pierogi and kielbasa to country favorites like buttermilk fried chicken. And they have pie! Heavenly, heavenly pie. 

All Ohio restaurants had to close their dining rooms on March 15 in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. While many restaurants, including The Farmer's Table, offered carry-out in the interim, that's not quite the same experience as dining inside a restaurant, where you can chat with your server and eat your food as soon as it's ready. 

Megan Leonhardt | CNBC

Eager to relive the dining experience, I made reservations a day in advance for lunch at 1:30 p.m. It's later than my family would normally eat, but we wanted to avoid the biggest crowds. I also specifically requested a table on the patio. Although dine-in options were available, the latest research showed that the coronavirus spreads more easily indoors, so eating outside felt less risky. 

However, Saturday morning was bright, sunny...and cold. With the temperatures in the low 60s, it was too cold to comfortably sit outside. I started to feel anxious about the decision to go out to eat. Should we cancel? Or grab take-out instead? We decided to chance it and stick with the original plan to eat on the patio. And thankfully, the temperature had creeped into the low 70s by the time we left for lunch.

Driving over to the restaurant, my family was quiet, a mix of nervousness and excitement simmering in the background. We pulled into the parking lot and geared up with masks and gloves before heading inside. The routine almost feels second-nature at this point.

Dining out is different, yet filled with a lot of the same moments

As soon as the car door opened, I could smell grilled meat and cheese wafting from the restaurant. The familiar aroma, as well as seeing so many people out and about, made it feel like a typical summer Saturday, yet the mask on my face reminded me it wasn't quite normal yet. 

Although we requested to sit outside, we had to go to the hostess stand inside the restaurant first. That meant touching two sets of doors to go in and out, which stressed me out. I didn't like wasting the one pair of gloves I brought with me just to open a door.

Inside, the restaurant had placed social distancing guides on the floor and the hostess stand was encased in Plexiglas. All the employees appeared to be wearing masks.

The restaurant promoted social distancing by having markers six feet apart on the floor when you walked in.
Megan Leonhardt | CNBC

We were seated right away at a table situated a fair distance away from the five other tables on the outside patio. Although I didn't measure the exact distance, it looked like the nearest table was a healthy six feet away.

Our table was bare of any place settings until we sat down. The server placed the menus, daily special printout and four silverware and napkin packets on the table as we sat down. The silverware was normal, metal flatware, but the napkins were disposable.

I expected to order food and drinks all at once to minimize contact, but the server stopped by several times. Another employee also brought around a drink board featuring the daily beers on tap, rather than adding another printout to the table. 

I ordered the "corona burger," which felt like an appropriate option, given the situation. Plus, the burger's toppings — grilled sweet onions, Amish cheddar, dill pickles and house aioli — sounded delicious. 

Although most of the customers came in without masks, my family opted to keep ours on until after we ordered. I actually kept mine on until the food arrived, which meant I had to wait to try my blackberry hard cider. I wanted to minimize the amount of time I was without a mask as much as possible. As I waited, I noticed that my glass had a brewery logo on it that resembled a small skull. For a second, my anxiety crept back in: Was it an omen?

Once the food arrived, I tentatively pushed my mask down around my neck, since mine requires a bit of effort to take off completely. The mask had gotten hot and uncomfortable, so it was refreshing to take in the fresh air. I felt grateful that I don't have to work all day in one — I can't imagine what that would be like.

Megan Leonhardt | CNBC

Over the course of the meal, restaurant employees came and went from the table about a dozen times, taking orders, bringing food and drinks and busing away leftovers. At one point, I realized that the side of ranch dressing I ordered (for my fries, of course) was missing, which prompted an internal debate over whether I wanted the server to make yet another trip to our table. I ended up asking for it. At that point, I doubted one more moment of contact would make a difference. 

Bottom line: Between our server, various restaurant employees and other patrons, there was no way to keep a six-foot distance with everyone throughout the entire meal. Each time we ordered, the server had to step close to hear us through the masks. And to get the food onto the table, the server had to again lean in. Everyone tried to keep their distance, but unless you have unnaturally long arms and incredible hearing, the risk is real.

Going out to eat isn't just risky for customers, it's also risky for employees. I'm glad restaurants and stores are reopening so folks can get back to work, but I worry about endangering these workers. It's something I thought about every time our server approached the table.  

Dining out for lunch at a local restaurant is possible again after some states start to lift stay-at-home orders.
Megan Leonhardt | CNBC

Would I do it again tomorrow?

The wafting aromas definitely lived up to the hype. The burger was delicious and the fries were perfectly crisp. And of course, I couldn't resist ordering a slice of the blueberry pie, which came topped with maple orange whipped cream. I couldn't wait to try to recreate the flavored whipped cream at home. 

Plus, I was genuinely happy to support a local business. Many had been through the wringer in recent weeks and I don't want to see wonderful restaurants like this one close because of the pandemic. Our server said that since the restaurant reopened, the weekdays had been slow, but weeknights and weekends were busy. While we were there, the tables around us filled up and emptied out pretty quickly, even for late lunch.

The tables remained bare until customers were seated.
Megan Leonhardt | CNBC

Still, I'm not sure I'll dine out again anytime soon. While the server and all of the restaurant's employees were friendly and upbeat, the experience was stressful. The restaurant seemed to be following all of the standard safety measures recommended to protect staff and customers, but it all served to remind me that things weren't normal. It felt like I was taking a giant, unnecessary risk to simply dine out. 

It felt weird to be out and about at all, yet at the same time, perfectly normal. It was easy to slip into the usual routine, only to have some small reminder startle me into realizing it's not the same as before the pandemic. 

For now, I think carry-out is a good compromise for me. Maybe next month I'll try dining out again. 

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