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Mask up! If you’re heading out to a restaurant, you’ll want to wear a mask whether you’re eating inside or on the patio. “Masks are an important tool to reduce the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. Any time you are out and about in public spaces and cannot keep at least 6 feet apart from others, a mask is important,” says Lisa M. Lee, PhD, a public health expert specializing in infectious disease epidemiology and public health ethics at Virginia Tech.

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Here’s the thing: you’re eating and drinking when dining out, so it can be confusing to know exactly when you should be wearing one. And all restaurants have different rules. So, follow this general advice for keeping yourself—and your fellow diners and restaurant staff—safe, wherever you’re considering dining out.

Wear a mask when ordering your meal.

Your server should be wearing a face mask, as well. Masks are important when communicating with your server. “You’re likely closer than 6 feet and if it’s loud and people are talking louder than normal, more respiratory droplets are forced into the air, which means potentially more virus particles,” says Lee.

Consider who’s in your group before socializing without a mask.

It’s tough to chat in a group while everyone’s wearing masks. Going out with other members of your household? If you’re at a restaurant that has set up tables outside to be 6 feet apart (so that you’re seated away from other patrons), then you can remove your mask to talk during your meal.

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If you’re meeting up with friends or family who aren’t in your bubble, dining out might be more challenging. Even if everyone wears masks, they can’t be worn constantly when you eat, boosting risk of potential transmission. Mask or not, you should sit 6 feet apart.

Maybe wear a mask during your meal.

If you’re eating with people you live with, it’s totally fine to take off your mask during that sweet spot when your drinks and meals arrive, says Lee. Clearly, you can’t sip or bite through a mask. That said, read the room. If it’s a crowded indoor restaurant where that 6-feet bubble isn’t being maintained, consider taking your food to go, she says.

Stash your mask in a bag.

When not wearing it, put your mask in a plastic bag, advises Lee. “Remember that the outward facing surface of the mask is where virus particles will be, so keep your hands clear of that side,” she says. No bag? Lee recommends folding the mask so that the front folds together and put it in your pocket. Wash your hands after touching your mask.

Bring two masks.

For the ultimate safety move, wear your first mask into the restaurant (and stow it safely when you're eating and drinking), then keep it stowed for later cleaning and don your new one for leaving the restaurant.

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