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New CDC report deems dining out a significant COVID-19 risk

The assessment applies to both indoor and outdoor dining, and calls for measures to offset the inability of diners to wear masks while eating.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Adults who contract COVID-19 are twice as likely as the general population to have eaten at a restaurant in the two weeks prior, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a report on Friday. 

Both indoor and outdoor dining pose a risk of infection because patrons can’t eat or drink with a mask on, the CDC noted. It advised that alternative defenses against coronavirus be considered “to protect customers, employees, and communities.”

The CDC report looks at onsite restaurant dining of all sorts, with no differentiation between eating outside or being seated indoors. It comes as restaurateurs in many areas are clamoring for restrictions on indoor table service to be lifted. 

Restaurants in New York City and many areas of California have yet to be allowed to reopen even a portion of their dining rooms. Operators elsewhere are pushing to raise imposed capacity caps of 25% or 50%. Nationally, many establishments have been offering onsite service through patios, parking lot seating or other open-air accommodations. 

A number of media reports on Friday cited the CDC's statement as proof of the danger's of eating at a restaurant while the coronavirus is still spreading. “Eating out is among riskiest activities during COVID-19 pandemic, CDC says,” read a headline yesterday from the Miami Herald.

Yet the CDC itself does not go as far as to characterize restaurant dining as one of the greatest dangers to public health during a pandemic. It concludes in the report issued Friday that eating and drinking onsite “might be important risk factors.” But the research simultaneously looks at the risks of associating with known COVID-19 victims, or what health officials have cited as the core way coronavirus infections are spread. 

The National Restaurant Association issued a response that asserts the risks can be allayed by following the safety protocols detailed in the group’s how-to guide, Restaurant Reopening Guidance. 

“We still do not find evidence of a systemic spread of the coronavirus coming from restaurants who are effectively following our Restaurant Reopening Guidance,” the group said in its statement. “When restaurants demonstrate effective mitigation efforts, the risk is low when dining outside or inside.”

The two-page statement offers point-by-point criticism of the CDC’s findings and research methodology. One of its key points is that the data shows a correlation between dining out and people contracting COVID-19, not a cause and effect. 

“The study tells us that people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 had also dined out,” reads the statement. “There is no clear evidence that the virus was actually contracted at a restaurant versus any other community locations.”

The association also notes five criticisms of the CDC research from the health agency itself.

“The conclusions reached by the researchers are not supported,” the group asserts. “Furthermore, the results calling out restaurants specifically are not supported by the data nor the methodology.”

The association has forecast that restaurants will lose $240 billion in sales this year because of dining rooms being closed and consumers being urged to stay at home.

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