BY: Becky Duffett

Just in time for the holidays, there’s a new COVID-19 variant spreading — omicron has arrived. But before you cancel all festivities, keep in mind it is a very different situation than this time last year, when no one was vaccinated and the winter surge prompted a full lockdown.

Still, a new variant is unnerving news, and some people might be wondering how to adjust their plans and activities. For diners it dredges back up the question of whether it’s still safe to continue indoor dining, or wiser to return to outdoor dining and takeout. Here’s the latest rundown on the numbers and recommendations.

Is it safe to dine indoors right now?

As we’ve seen again and again throughout the pandemic, at the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to your personal risk tolerance. Indoor dining is fully open right now across counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, but of course that doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Indoor dining is still considered a high risk activity, per the CDC. And while generally, fully vaccinated individuals may resume activities from before the pandemic, caveat number one is that you must wear a mask indoors in an area of “substantial or high risk.” At of the time of writing, San Francisco County is one notch below that at a “moderate risk.”

How much is omicron spreading in San Francisco?

The county’s first confirmed case of omicron was detected right here in San Francisco, although there may well be many more undetected cases elsewhere. At the time of writing, San Francisco is reporting 81 COVID-19 cases and 33 hospitalizations over a 7-day average, and 80 percent of all residents are fully vaccinated.

Those numbers don’t distinguish between omicron, delta, or the original COVID-19 strain. As of December 12, there were only 24 confirmed cases of omicron across the entire state, as shared by the California Department of Public Health. The CDC says that delta continues to be the main variant circulating in the United States, but the World Health Organization has classified omicron a variant of concern, and surge predictions are swirling.

I’m vaccinated — won’t that protect me?

Omicron is a new variant, so we don’t know how easily it spreads, whether it will cause severe illness, or how well our existing vaccines might work. Per one early study from South Africa, the Pfizer vaccine was only 30 percent effective against omicron, although it protected 70 percent from hospitalization, as reported by NPR. So it’s not looking good for breakthrough cases, although vaccines and boosters may still offer good protection against hospitalization and death.

But restaurants have safety measures, right?

San Francisco currently has an indoor mask mandate, which has been in effect since summer 2021. California just brought back a mask mandate for 30 days, covering the holidays from December 15 to January 15. San Francisco also has a vaccine proof mandate, even if no one can really figure out the best way to put it into practice at restaurants. But every time you take a seat in a dining room, you’re trusting everyone to follow the rules, and you take off your mask to eat and drink.