Here is a sentence I did not think I’d necessarily have to type again: Infection numbers are creeping up in New York City, and officials are concerned about a new variant that could arrive in the United States very soon. (If it hasn’t already.) (Which it very likely has.)
These two factors combined, plus an inevitable seasonal COVID uptick — happy holidays! — may put an end to whatever sense of calm you were feeling about the idea of indoor dining. Or maybe you were already avoiding indoor dining for any number of reasons and this only serves to reinforce your existing concerns.
On the other hand: It is now officially cold. This is normal, obviously, and historically, it has been no problem: When it is cold outside, what you do is go inside, where it is warm. The threat of COVID made indoor dining impossible last winter — “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing!” we chattered while slurping bouillabaisse in yurts — but this year was supposed to be different. We are double-vaxxed and triple-vaxxed and we are ready for this. The outlook had been … almost normal?
And, to be sure, plenty of people are still happily dining indoors. Maybe you are one of them, or you want to be one of them. But should you be?
Pro: Indoors is warm.
Dining is supposed to be pleasant. From now until May, it will be more pleasant inside than out.
Con: But outdoors is still warmish.
A lot of restaurateurs have gone to great lengths to winterize their outdoor setups. Barring extreme cold and/or precipitation, isn’t it your civic duty, in a way, to bask in all that new electric heat?
Right now in New York City, everyone inside restaurants is vaccinated by law, at least in theory. This is no guarantee against infection, but it does improve the odds in your favor by a significant margin. And it is heartening to see that restaurant staff members appear to be taking this mandate seriously, often double-checking vaccine cards and Excelsior passes against photo IDs. And this program (the so-called “Key to NYC”) isn’t going anywhere.
Omicron is, you already know, a new COVID “variant of concern.” What does this mean? Nobody really knows yet! We don’t know how transmissible it is, or how well vaccines work against it, or how sick it can make the people it infects. While there are no confirmed cases yet in the United States, experts (and common sense) will tell you that it’s only a matter of time until that changes.
Pro: There’s no reason to assume the worst.
Viruses mutate. We knew that. That doesn’t necessarily mean this particular mutation is a crisis. At the moment, “there’s no evidence that Omicron causes more severe disease than previous variants,” the New York Times reported this past weekend. And, as the Times’ David Leonhardt wrote yesterday, “Assuming the worst about each worrisome new variant is not a science-based, rational response.” But it is an exhausting response. “Absent new evidence,” Leonhardt concluded, “the rational assumption is that Covid is likely to remain overwhelmingly mild among the vaccinated.”
Con: It’s time for the winter spike.
Even before omicron, experts were bracing for cases to rise once temperatures fell. Nobody is predicting the catastrophic pre-vaxx death toll of last winter, but people will be inside more once it gets colder. They’ll travel for the holidays. There’s some reason to believe COVID is at least somewhat seasonal, like the flu, and it is flu season. And now another variant? You could eat inside, but could you enjoy it? If you’re going to be ambiently anxious, you can do that at home.
Pro: It’s time.
We cannot live in a state of suspended animation forever. COVID exists; by getting vaccinated, we’re doing what we can; and, barring extenuating circumstances (or young children), what, at this point, are we waiting for? There’s a risk of breakthrough infections, but the benefit — having a normal social experience in a temperature-controlled environment — is not nothing. Hasn’t it been nice seeing your friends? And there are additional steps to take: In her Substack this weekend, Your Local Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina advised, “Use masks. Test if you have symptoms. Isolate if positive. Get vaccinated. Get boosted.” Lastly, many restaurants are reasonably well ventilated. Go to those.
Con: But you could also still wait.
There’s a lot we don’t know about this variant, but scientists are working on it. It will take weeks for researchers to learn more about how Omicron works, and then we’ll be able to make more informed decisions. We’re almost two years into this — at this point, what’s a few more weeks if it means peace of mind?
In keeping with the general theme of the past two years, there is no good answer. If you were comfortable eating inside before omicron, you can continue doing that for now. If the idea of being outdoors in a heavy coat and under a heater makes you more comfortable, that’s still an option. And if you’d rather just stay home and minimize any risk of exposure, Grub Street recommends the new season of Peacock’s Saved By the Bell reboot, a show that is, against almost all possible odds, quite entertaining.