Days after dining in returned to Orange County, the CDC has released a report stating that frequenting restaurants increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, raising concerns of local operators and the National Restaurant Association.
The report, dated Friday, Sept. 11, pointed out that, “Adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”
The findings were gathered July 1–29 from a “case-control investigation of symptomatic outpatients from 11 U.S. health care facilities.” The subjects were interviewed about their behaviors including wearing a mask and “possible community exposure activities” such as attending gatherings with more or fewer than 10 persons in a home; shopping; dining at a restaurant; going to an office setting, salon, gym, bar/coffee shop, or church/religious gathering; or using public transportation.
It specifically mentioned air circulation. “Direction, ventilation, and intensity of airflow might affect virus transmission, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance. Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use.”
Some local restaurant owners had already taken these risks into account, maintaining patio-only service even after dine-in restrictions were lifted for some counties on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
“It’s my personal nature to want to take the cautious route versus the sort of risky one, just at the sake of making some extra money for a short period and then having to close the doors again,” said John Secretan, owner of Zinc Café & Market restaurants in Corona del Mar, Laguna Beach and downtown Los Angeles.
Andrew Gruel, founder of Slapfish, a casual seafood outlet with 27 stores nationwide, has stuck with outdoor dining, sprinkling in a few indoor seats only where possible, in some of his six Southern California restaurants. He hasn’t ruled out dining in, but says he would add it very carefully. “Our strategy across the entire enterprise is just wait and then slowly kind of dip our toe in the water,” he said.
As for the CDC study, he says it feels like a hit on the industry. “No. 1, what was that sample size? And then No. 2, where else did they interact? Like, where did they go? I’m not just being overly protective because it’s the industry which I love and my livelihood. I get nervous about specifically using an industry, like the restaurant industry, when it really is about interacting and retail across the board.”
The National Restaurant Association agreed. In a statement released to the media on Friday, Sept. 11, its criticisms included the size of the sample (314 patients), the disregard of customer behavior outside of restaurants, and that it did not ask whether participants had dined indoors or outdoors.
The association concluded that, “It is irresponsible to pin the spread of COVID-19 on a single industry. Restaurants have historically operated with highly regulated safety protocols based on the FDA’s Food Code and have taken additional steps to meet the safe operating guidelines required by CDC, FDA, OSHA, federal, state, and local officials.”
An article addressing the report in business-to-business publication, Nation’s Restaurant News, noted that this was not the first time the two have been related. It referred to a JP Morgan Chase study that linked spikes in the number of coronavirus cases to dining out by tracking the purchases of Chase cardholders and COVID-19 data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.
But “correlation does not equal causation,” the National Restaurant Association said in its statement.
And these are desperate times, as reported in that same Nation’s Restaurant News article. “The foodservice industry has lost $165 billion in revenue from March through July. More than $131 billion of that revenue is tied to restaurants and bars. The industry is on track to lose $240 billion by the end the year.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, restaurants have all been proceeding with caution, and the latest report is nothing new, according to a response to the CDC report from the Orange County Health Care Agency.
“Disease transmission is still widespread so people should be mindful of increased risk in situations where social distancing and wearing of face coverings is more difficult and that when unable to socially distance, being outside is lower risk than indoors. This applies to all settings, not just restaurants,” said Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the agency.
As for consumers, Secretan suggested that rather than give up dining out, just use common sense and do your own investigation.
“Drive the area where you’re going to have dinner, scope out the restaurants first, scope out their seating areas and watch them the day before. See if employees are wearing masks, see if they’re only wearing face shields and no mask under their face shield, and the distancing of their tables,” he said. “And then make your own judgment.”