I’m sitting here trying to recall the last time I sat down at a restaurant, or a café, or really any eat-in establishment, and for the life of me, I cannot remember. It must have been sometime in January or February of last year. This isn’t to say that I haven’t gotten food from a restaurant; I surely have. We have gotten takeout from time to time, and once a month my wife and I go on a pretty hot COVID-19 date, where we put our teenage son in charge of his sisters and then drive to our favorite taco place, sit in our car, eat takeout, and listen to music from the ’90s.
Like most people, I do miss eating out in an actual restaurant with family and friends. And I do have huge empathy for people who work in the restaurant industry. But in reality, a great place to get COVID-19 is — you guessed it — at a restaurant.
Last Friday, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new study showing the efficacy of mask wearing in the fight against COVID-19. During their research they also found that in places where in-person dining was made available, there was a sharp increase in daily infections about six weeks later, along with an increase in the COVID-19 death rates about two months later.
This all boiled down to the CDC reiterating their existing policy: “Mask mandates and restricting any on-premises dining at restaurants can help limit community transmission of COVID-19 and reduce case and death growth rates.” And yet, we have many states in a rush to lift mask mandates (I’m looking at you, Texas and Mississippi) and to open their restaurants for in person dining at 100% capacity, as if COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror.
And listen to me. It’s not behind us.
Sure, we are having a lot of great strides in getting Americans vaccinated. According to the New York Times, 54 million people have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. We have three approved and available vaccines, and that is awesome. Chances are, some of your own family members have already been fully vaccinated. I live in Oregon, and my wife works at our children’s school. She got the first shot a couple weeks ago, and is scheduled to get the second very soon.
But my friends, we are not out of the woods yet. The U.S. is often checking in at 2,000 COVID-19 deaths a day, and not to state the obvious, but that is not a small number. Is the risk of contracting COVID-19, or giving it to someone else at high risk, worth eating breadsticks inside your favorite restaurant?
We both know the answer to that, and it’s an unequivocal “no.”
A study out of China, released in October 2020, found that droplets and airborne particles in indoor spaces — like restaurants — make them the most common venues in which to contract COVID. And a September 2020 study by the CDC showed that confirmed COVID-19 patients were about twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks before becoming ill.
Ventilation plays a big part in transmission of the virus, and indoor dining spaces aren’t always well ventilated. Jose-Luis Jimenez, chemistry professor at the University of Colorado and aerosols expert, explained to The Denver Post that restaurant diners expel aerosols into the air like smoke from a cigarette. While the safety guidelines advise us to gather outdoors if possible, and only with people from our own household, and wear a mask, Jimenez notes that restaurant dining is basically the opposite.” You spend a lot of time there, talking without a mask, sharing the same air,” he said.
I know it’s been a long year. But we can wait. We really can. We can continue to put the brakes on eating in person until we get further along with the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Just last week President Biden announced that “We’re now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May.” Originally he’d been saying we’d have enough by the end of July. There is an end in sight, or at least a reprieve.
So if I have any advice for those of you living in a state where restaurants are actively opening up for in person dining, it’s this: don’t. Takeout orders are still orders. Leave a nice tip when you can. Support your local business while also taking the steps needed to stop the spread of the virus.
There is very clearly light at the end of this very long and dark COVID-19 tunnel. We are moving in the right direction. People are getting vaccinated, and case numbers are slowing down. But we can’t be so quick to cut in line here. We need to realize that COVID-19 is still very real, and very deadly — and with new variants popping up across the world, we need to do everything we can to see this thing through until the nation, the world, reaches herd immunity with the vaccine. And then, once it’s safe, we can eat out in a restaurant again … without worrying about getting a side of COVID with our meal.
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