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October 2, 2020

Weekly line: As weather turns chilly, is it safe yet to dine indoors?

Daily Briefing

    Like many of you, I'm sure, dining at my favorite local restaurants is one of the things I've missed amid America's coronavirus epidemic. Earlier this year, many restaurants quickly ramped up take-out services and outdoor dining to continue serving our favorite dishes while also complying with measures intended to curb the virus's spread—a task that was well complimented by summer's warmer months. But restaurants in colder regions now face a new challenge: how to make it safe for patrons to dine inside when it becomes too cold to eat outside.

    Weekly line: How to make the indoors safer from the new coronavirus

    Here's what some restaurants are doing to make indoor dining safer—and why it could be difficult for them to succeed.

    How restaurants are looking to make indoor dining safer

    Most health experts agree that indoor dining is more likely to lead to coronavirus outbreaks than outdoor dining. But some states have begun lifting restrictions on indoor dining and bars, and outdoor dining will become less desirable as America heads into colder months. That leaves restaurants needing to revamp once again, this time with many looking into ways they can make indoor dining safer when it comes to coronavirus-transmission risk.

    For example, Magnolia Bakery has installed "cleansing chamber[s], analogous to the disinfecting airlocks outside biohazard labs," at its New York City locations, writes Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Anyone entering the locations has to walk through the chambers, which "bath[e]" their "entire bodies … in ultraviolet light for 20 seconds," according to Mims. He explains, "Based on years of research, scientists say they are confident this particular type of UV light is lethal for viruses and bacteria, but safe for humans."

    Also in New York, Melba's is looking to move its host station—which, as the Times' Pete Wells writes, "is almost always the most crowded spot in any restaurant"—outside via a weather-protected, modular unit that can remain outside year-round. And Wells notes that other restaurants in New York City are looking to reduce the amount of contact staff have with customers by using "contactless ordering, payment, and other transactions." Further, some New York restaurants are looking to upgrade their HVAC systems to hopefully curb the coronavirus's transmission.

    In Chicago, Formento's, an Italian restaurant in the city's West Town neighborhood, is offering guests "a portable air purifier for their table," the Chicago Tribune's Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz writes. According to Elejalde-Ruiz, "The tabletop devices are among a series of air quality upgrades the restaurant introduced [last] month to assure customers they can breathe easy dining inside." In addition, Formento's customers can "expect to see bussers using ultraviolet wands to sterilize glassware and utensils," she writes, and Formento's also has invested in sterilizing foggers and floor purifies.

    Similarly, Elejalde-Ruiz reports that Francesca's Restaurant Group, which owns 26 establishments, is spending roughly $100,000 to add bipolar ionization technology to the HVAC units in all of its restaurants. According to Elejalde-Ruiz, the technology "kills viruses through a chemical reaction."

    And Lettuce Entertain You, the largest restaurant group in Chicago, plans to spend at least seven-figures installing air purification technologies at its more than 120 restaurants across the United States by the end of this month, R.J. Melman, the company's president, told Elejalde-Ruiz.

    Why it could be difficult for restaurants to succeed

    In order to succeed, experts say restaurants will need to create an environment that customers feel safe dining in—and they have a good deal of people to win over. According to Elejalde-Ruiz, a recent study from the market research company Mintel found that almost 60% of people say they don't feel comfortable dining indoors.

    And there's data to show there is some cause for concern. For instance, data from Louisiana's Department of Health shows that the state reported a total of 3,039 cases of coronavirus infections associated with so-called "non-congregate settings" from March through Sept. 30. Of those cases, more than 22% were associated with bars and restaurants. The department reported that bars and restaurants have been tied to a total of 88 coronavirus outbreaks in the state.

    Similarly, contact tracing data from Maryland shows that 23% of cases that the state contact traced occurred among people who said they had dined indoor at a restaurant, and 23% occurred among people who said they had dined outdoors at a restaurant. In addition, 12% of the cases occurred among individuals who were employed in the restaurant/food service industry.

    Anecdotal evidence also supports the trend. For example, in Spokane, Washington, 24 customers and an employee of a taco restaurant tested positive for the coronavirus, even though the restaurant followed all the recommended precautions to prevent the virus's transmission.

    And a recent CDC report suggested that dining at a restaurant is one of the riskiest activities for contracting the novel coronavirus. The researchers in the report wrote, "Eating and drinking on-site at locations that offer such options might be important risk factors associated with [coronavirus] infection." They continued, "Efforts to reduce possible exposures where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, such as when eating and drinking, should be considered to protect customers, employees, and communities."

    Will restaurants' latest efforts be enough?

    But it's unclear whether the new tactics restaurants are using to create an environment that feels safe from the coronavirus will be effective.

    Some experts have noted that many of the new cleaning tactics businesses are employing to mitigate coronavirus transmission—including sanitizer sprayers, foggers, and other measures aimed at decontaminating surfaces—are more "sanitization theater" than anything else, as they don't address the fact that the novel coronavirus most often transmits through droplets and aerosols in the air, not through things we touch.

    Increasing ventilation and air filtration might help. While the Environmental Protection Agency has said "there is growing evidence that the novel coronavirus remains airborne in indoor environments for hours, potentially increasing in concentration over time," the agency also has suggested that increasing buildings' ventilation and air filtration could help to mitigate the virus' spread, as a part of a broader plan that also includes disinfecting high-touch areas, wearing face masks or coverings, physical distancing, and hand-washing, Elejalde-Ruiz notes.

    However, Brent Stephens—a professor and chair in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told Elejalde-Ruiz that insufficient testing standards and disingenuous claims have created a Wild West when it comes to air cleaning technologies. As such, he worries that some of the technologies, such as ionization systems, haven't been adequately tested to ensure they don't produce byproducts that could be harmful to people's health, or that they simply won't work against the novel coronavirus.

    In addition, whether restaurants are successful in preventing coronavirus outbreaks also will depend on their customers' behavior. As Todd Rice, a co-author of the recent CDC report and an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told NBC News, "If people are going to eat out, they need to be thoughtful about how they're going to do it. Even if I'm sitting at a table and the food hasn't arrived yet, I still wear a mask. I won't sit at a table that's next to somebody else."

    So as has been the case in recent months, if you do decide to partake in indoor dining, you'll want to be sure to continue physically distancing yourself from others and wearing a face mask or covering as much as possible. And, as we've previously noted in Daily Briefing, remember that it's important to consider the level of risk you're comfortable with and the various factors that impact your risk level—and to be mindful that low or moderate risk activities are not equivalent to no risk.

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