The restaurant industry is taking a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some big chains are filing for bankruptcy or facing challenges paying debts.
Restaurants are trying to keep customers safe from COVID-19 – by wearing masks, serving outdoors and disinfecting from top to bottom – but a new study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests it might not be enough.
Adults with confirmed COVID-19 are twice as likely to have dined out at a restaurant in the 14 days before becoming sick than those who tested negative, according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report issued Thursday.
Positive patients were also more likely to report going to a bar or coffee shop when the analysis was limited to those without close contact to people with known coronavirus.
The study included 314 symptomatic adults who were tested for COVID-19 in July at 11 health care facilities across multiple states. Of that group, 154 patients tested positive for COVID-19.
Before the report was published, the CDC had already organized restaurant precautions into four categories based on risk:
- Lowest risk: Food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out and curb-side pickup.
- More risk: Drive-through, delivery, take-out and curb-side pickup emphasized. On-site dining limited to outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
- Even more risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduce to allow tables to be spaces at least 6 feet apart.
- Highest risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaces at least 6 feet apart.
The Association of Food and Drug Officials issued a statement in a response to the CDC study Thursday, noting many of the study’s limitations. The overall COVID-19 control measures varied greatly in communities during the study period, the group said, adding that the report didn’t specify if diners chose to eat inside or outside the establishment.
The group also emphasized that pickup and delivery remain very low-risk options to get food from bars, taverns and restaurants.
“The hospitality industry has responded and evolved to continue to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to their customers,” said AFDO executive director Steven Mandernach. “It’s important that we work together to ensure the public’s safety while supporting consumer confidence in the food they order and eat both dine in and take out.”
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Dr. Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said the study sample size is fairly small and was taken from states that were in different stages of community transmission and phased reopening. She also said it may have been important to know if these restaurants were complying with local COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions, or not.
However, the report is consistent with other data from local health departments, she said.
“I think this is a very important finding and it’s not the first time we’ve seen this reported,” she said. “Individual states have reported with their contact tracing that a fairly large number of people had eaten at a restaurant before getting sick.”
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Eating is one of the higher risk activities depending on how it’s done because people have to take off their mask when they eat, said Paul Biddinger, director of the Emergency Preparedness Research, Evaluation and Practice program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
When diners choose to go out, he said, they must be mindful of the multiple risks associated with that especially when sharing a table with a person outside of their household.
“I absolutely understand why people are eager to get together with friends and we certainly want to be able to support the restaurant community. I think people have to be exceptionally cautious in their dining choices,” he said. “I don’t think (the report] automatically says that all dining events are risky.”
Contributing: Jessica Flores, USA TODAY. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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