August 14, 2020

Is it safe to eat in bars and restaurants? Here's what the evidence says.

Daily Briefing

    Reopenings of restaurants and bars across America have been tied to surges in new coronavirus cases that are putting the lives of patrons, restaurant workers, and others at risk, Jennifer Steinhauer reports for the New York Times.

    Coronavirus outbreaks tied to indoor dining nationwide

    According to the Steinhauer, data shows that multiple coronavirus outbreaks were tied to indoor dining after states began allowing restaurants and bars to reopen.

    For instance, about 25% of Louisiana's 2,360 coronavirus cases since March that occurred outside of settings such as nursing homes and prisons were linked to restaurants and bars, according to state data. Similarly, 12% of new coronavirus cases in Maryland last month were linked to restaurants, according to data from contact tracers, while 9% of new cases in Colorado were linked to restaurants and bars.

    In San Diego, 15 out of 39 new cases of the coronavirus were tied to restaurants in just one week. And in Washington, D.C., the number of new coronavirus cases started to increase as the city began to permit indoor dining, Steinhauer reports.

    Anecdotal evidence also supports the trend. For example, in Spokane, Washington, 24 customers and an employee of a taco restaurant tested positive for the virus, even though the restaurant followed all the recommended precautions to prevent transmission. And Modoc, a remote county in the northeastern part of California, has connected its first documented coronavirus cases to a restaurant.

    In response to these outbreaks, restaurants and bars in popular cities across the country have had to shut down temporarily. Other cities, such as New York, have gone further, maintaining a complete ban on indoor dining to prevent cases among patrons and staff, while still allowing outdoor dining.

    According to Steinhauer, most health experts agree that indoor dining is more likely to lead to coronavirus outbreaks than outdoor dining, and Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and a clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, noted that outdoor spaces so far seem safer. "As of recently, we still hadn't traced a major U.S. outbreak of any sort to an outdoor exposure," Leininger said.

    Restaurant owners, employees feel pressured to open

    Out of all businesses, restaurants were hit particularly hard by mandated closures spurred by the coronavirus epidemic, Steinhauer reports. Federal aid in the spring was doled out mostly to businesses that kept their workers employed, and businesses had to spend 75% of the relief on payroll. However, most bars and restaurants were not allowed to open at that point, and most of those that were permitted to open had to limit their capacity by 50%. Under those limitations, many bars and restaurants were failing to pull in enough revenue to remain open.

    Michael Shemtov, who owns 10 restaurants in Charleston and Nashville, said he had to "scrambl[e]" to get as many employees on board as possible to prepare to reopen. "The only way to lure them in was to pay them for 40 hours a week, no matter how much they worked or didn't work."

    Despite these challenges, Daniel Patterson, a chef in California, said a lot of restaurants faced pressure from legislators to reopen and remain open. "Restaurants generate a lot of sales and payroll tax revenue, so some of the pressure came from city and state governments," he said. "And I think one of the factors behind the quick openings is that our society sees restaurants as disposable and those who work in them as disposable, so in general, people are less concerned with restaurant worker safety than they are with their own needs. They want a taco and a cold beer when they want it."

    Restaurant workers at increased risk

    And safety has proven to be challenging for restaurant employees. While a lot of employees were excited to return to work after lockdown, others were wary to return, citing fears that they would contract the virus at work.

    Jennifer Welch, a bartender at a large pool hall in Baton Rouge, said she "100% felt forced back to work at the bar." Welch said that, even though she has an immunocompromised baby at home and her father has Stage 4 small cell lung cancer, she felt pressured to return to working 10-hour shifts.

    Similarly, Brian Biondi said he did not want to go back to bartending in the French Quarter when restaurants reopened in June, explaining he was afraid he would get the virus—and he eventually did, experiencing a "mild" bout with Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in July.

    According to Steinhauer, Hispanic workers are at particular risk, given that they make up over 27% of restaurant and food service employees. In addition, coronavirus outbreaks at restaurants could disproportionately affect low-income workers who may not have health coverage.

    "Due to their socio-demographic composition, food servers and their families are at elevated infection risk," Leininger said. "Throughout the [epidemic], we've witnessed the phenomenon of younger workers inadvertently infecting older household members, with tragic consequences."

    And while restaurants are taking what precautions they can to prevent and contain infection—such as routine temperature checks for customers, workers, and vendors, as well as items such as virtual menus—those measures are not always effective.

    For instance, while restaurants are trying to facilitate coronavirus testing for their employees, slow turnaround times for results means that restaurant workers face increased personal risk for infection—and days out of work while they wait for results. Alex Jahangir, who chairs a coronavirus task force in Nashville, said, "Sometimes the restaurant will tell their employees to come to one of our city sites, which are free, but the results may take three days."

    Moreover, stories of defiant, mask-less patrons have also scared some restaurant workers away from returning to work.

    "There are still a lot of people that are denying the intensity, a lot of non-maskers," Biondi said.

    Waites Laseter, the head bartender at the Backspace Bar & Kitchen in New Orleans, said the longer the restaurant stayed open, the more people opposed precautionary measures. At one point, according to Laseter, one of his friends "was threatened with a gun over putting on a mask."

    But some restaurants said adopting protocols like routine temperature checks for customers, workers, and vendors, and employing items like virtual menus has helped to reduce the risk of transmission, Steinhauer reports (Steinhauer, New York Times, 8/12).

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