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Latest Dining Trend? Rapid Covid-19 Tests at Restaurants | Frommer's Baramyou0708/Shutterstock

Latest Dining Trend? Rapid Covid-19 Tests at Restaurants

What pairs best with a nasal swab—prosecco or champagne?

The City Winery restaurant chain is about to ask that question.

City Winery locations, dedicated to wine appreciation and live music (in normal times), are currently open in Atlanta, Chicago, New York State's Hudson Valley, Nashville, and New York City. Outposts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., are temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

Perhaps in an attempt to reopen the full chain, the New York City location has launched a Covid-19 testing program for diners.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, customers will be required to take a rapid coronavirus test before entering the main dining room. A $50 fee for that test will be applied when prepaid reservations are taken.

If you'd rather not tack on an extra $50 to your dining experience, you can reach out to your insurance company to find out if the test can be reimbursed. Many insurers are currently covering testing costs.

A certified practitioner will be at the restaurant to administer tests. Each customer will be given a flute of bubbly to nurse while waiting the 10–15 minutes for results.

If the results are negative, congrats: You get to eat.

Even if you test positive, though, the restaurant won’t dump you on the sidewalk. Instead, you'll be given another, more accurate PCR test before you leave, with results expected in 24 hours. 

But if the first test isn't wholly reliable, can patrons trust that they're safe?

A recent study found that a rapid antigen test detected 80% of coronavirus cases in people with symptoms, but only 32% among those without symptoms—the sort still feeling healthy enough to, say, go out to restaurants.   

PCR tests have a higher (though still not 100%) accuracy rate, which is why those are the tests required for entry to most countries accepting travelers. (Not that PCR test results are easy to get right now, amid the surge in coronavirus infections.) For more info on the differences among Covid-19 test types, see our recent primer

I'd need to convene a team of statisticians and ethicists to work out how profound the risk is with City Winery's rapid testing scheme. It stands to reason, though, that a rapid antigen test, while not ideal, is better than nothing, especially in a city allowing limited indoor dining already.

It's conceivable that this type of testing could be adopted at restaurants across the United States, supplying some peace of mind to travelers who hit the road to eat at great restaurants and enjoy nightlife.

The rapid testing idea has been floated, and in some cases adopted, by other travel-related businesses, including hotels, casinos, cruise ships, and theme parks. 

Universal resorts and Six Flags have conducted consumer surveys gauging the willingness of park-goers to submit to tests, and some have proposed rapid testing as a solution for the reopening of Disneyland and other California theme parks, which under current state guidelines might not be able to welcome guests back until summer 2021.  

The eagerness of businesses in the travel industry to get their paying customers back is understandable. But for those customers, the questions about the reliability of rapid antigen tests remain. 

In addition to administering tests, City Winery's health and safety measures include spacing out indoor tables and testing staff members. 

"We hope that you will join us in this unique effort to create a safe and comfortable NYC dining experience," writes City Winery in an email sent out to New York customers. 

I have to say, the idea of sipping wine and listening to some live music is far more appealing than shivering on a sidewalk dinner date in 30-degree temperatures.

The question is: Does rapid testing make that pretty picture safe? Or provide merely an illusion of safety?