Why Indoor Dining is So Risky in the Age of Coronavirus

The dining room at Intersect by Lexus in New York City

By Kurt Stolz on 29 June 2020
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Over the past several days, we’ve seen state officials focus on one aspect of the reopening more so than any other that is causing the number of new coronavirus cases to spike: Indoor dining.

Restaurants face great challenges when they try to reopen their dining rooms. Ventilation systems can create complex patterns of airflow and keep viruses aloft.  As a result, simply spacing tables six feet apart, in line with current social-distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, likely won’t be sufficient to safeguard diners.

In addition, dining out is a largely social activity.  Diners linger over a coffee, a glass of Eiswein, or just good conversation. The longer people linger at a table, the greater the likelihood is that they will inhale coronavirus particles. The source of infection doesn’t even have to come from someone at the table or the server or host: A study earlier this year by Chinese researchers looked at how one diner, asymptomatic at the time, who was eating at a restaurant in Guangzhou infected nine other diners who were nearby because the restaurant’s ventilation system kept the aerosols containing the virus within one specific area.  No staff members became ill, nor did the other 73 diners who were there that evening.

In addition, people eat, talk, laugh, even cough inadvertently whilst at the table and masks and eating simply don’t mix.

In April, the CDC said to avoid “large and small gatherings in private places and public spaces, such a friend’s house, parks, restaurants, shops, or any other place.” They weren’t wrong and they weren’t kidding.

The failure to follow that advice some eight weeks later has led to a situation where the number of new cases of the novel coronavirus has climbed sharply in many of the states that were the first to reopen their economies, including Florida and Texas.    As a result, at least 15 states have either paused their plans to reopen their economies or reversed some plans that were already put into effect.

While the move to open up parks and other outdoor activities has not led to a resurgence of cases, the move to reopen bars and restaurants has.

In Lansing, Michigan, one restaurant, Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub, popular with University of Michigan students, is the apparent source of 107 coronavirus infections and counting since June 8.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott ordered the bars in his state to close again, and told restaurants to reduce capacity to 50%. California Governor Gavin Newsome closed bars in seven of the state’s counties on Monday, and Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey closed bars, gyms, movie theaters, and water parks.

In the Northeast, the region that has seen more cases and deaths than any other in the country, New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy said that reopening restaurant dining rooms has been put off “indefinitely,” and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would announce a decision on indoor dining in the state on Wednesday.

Jonathan Spira contributed to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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