Is Indoor Dining Safe During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
The scene: A two-hour indoor birthday dinner at an upscale American restaurant in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. The day: Saturday, June 20. The result: 8 positive cases of coronavirus so far, likely sparked by a couple who traveled from Texas and later confessed that they attended while already feeling sick and planning on getting tested.
Samantha Manning, a social media specialist for EatingWell and Allrecipes in Des Moines, Iowa recalls, "I didn't realize it was going to be such a large group—16 people—before arriving. Some of the people there I hadn't met before, they were mutual friends of the person we were celebrating."
It was the first and only time she had been out to eat inside at a restaurant since businesses in Iowa were shut down in mid-March.
"I had been quite strict about social distancing and wearing a mask prior to that evening. I guess I was getting antsy seeing everyone else out and about in the weeks leading up to the event, and wasn't aware of the spike in cases in Iowa," she says. "It wasn't until I arrived at the restaurant and saw how many people were there that I started to get nervous."
Two days after the dinner, on the night of June 22, Manning's boyfriend started to experience some coronavirus symptoms. The other 14 people at the party didn't know to begin quarantine until Tuesday, and all 16 had to let everyone else they had seen on Sunday and Monday at other gatherings or at work that they had been exposed for proper contact tracing.
"As far as I know, 8 people who attended the dinner tested positive that week. I was tested on Thursday and got the positive results back on Saturday. No one that my boyfriend or I saw on Sunday or Monday got sick, so we think it didn't spread past the two of us. However, the small business that my boyfriend works for had to completely shut down for the week while they all got tested. The ripple effect of one exposure is wild," she says.
Manning herself didn't show any symptoms for 13 days, and wouldn't have quarantined or had a test if she hadn't been aware of the exposure. On Friday, July 3, she lost her sense of smell, felt forehead pressure similar to a head cold and began sneezing a bit. The next day, she began to feel better, but her sense of smell is still MIA. Others in the group were asymptomatic, or experienced fairly mild symptoms including headaches, exhaustion, loss of taste and smell or flu symptoms for a day or two.
Unfortunately, this is becoming an all too familiar tale as new positive cases hover between 40,000 and 60,000 per day in the United States since the start of July. Easing of restrictions for indoor gatherings appears to play a big role in the uptick in cases. JPMorgan Chase analyzed credit card location data and discovered that in-person restaurant dining is linked to faster spread of the coronavirus.
One bar and grill in Lansing, Michigan, has been cited as the source of more than 150 cases alone. As a result of these trends and more data, some governors (like Gavin Newsom of California) are shutting down bars and/or restaurants after reopening them—or slowing their plan to reopen (including Andrew Cuomo in New York).
This all comes on the heels of a new Japanese study that found that coronavirus cases are nearly 19 times more likely to be transmitted in indoor spaces than outdoor ones.
Many states still allow indoor dining, and many restaurateurs are doing their best to make the environment safely distanced, mask-inclusive and comply with all CDC guidelines. Still, any indoor get-together presents a risk, since the virus is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets. As Manning's dinner proves, you can't control what other diners do—and they can be putting you, other diners and the restaurant staff at risk.
"Looking back, I definitely should have stayed home. At first, I blamed it on the couple who exposed us, but in the end, it was on me for showing up. The responsible thing to do would have been to just stay home," she says.
While it's no fun to say "no" to celebrating momentous life events IRL, it's likely best to stick to virtual happy hours and dinner parties, takeout or, at most, small-group patio dining until positive cases begin to decrease more from coast to coast.
"As important as it feels to celebrate, it's more important to stop the spread of the virus," Manning says. "You can't assume that people you encounter out in public or at private gatherings are showing up healthy."