Eating in a restaurant could pose a greater risk of exposure to coronavirus than many might think. According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those who tested positive for COVID-19 had significantly more likely to eat at a restaurant than those who tested negative in the past 14 days.
The study, which was just published in the CDC’s weekly report on morbidity and mortality, looked at data from 154 people who tested positive for COVID-19 and 160 controls who tested negative in 11 health facilities across the country. Specifically, the researchers analyzed the participants’ data regarding demographics, underlying illnesses, possible exposure to the coronavirus, mask wearing habits, and other behaviors in the community, such as: For example, go to a restaurant, go to a salon, or attend an indoor meeting.
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On the other hand, people with positive COVID-19 tests were significantly more likely to report close contact with people who also had COVID-19 than control persons. Those who tested positive also reported significantly more often eating in a restaurant in the two weeks prior to their illness. Of those who tested positive, around 41% said they had eaten in a restaurant on site, while only 28% of controls said they had eaten in a restaurant.
When it came to masks, roughly the same number of participants in each group stated that they always wear a mask or face covering in public. Those who went to restaurants, bars, or cafes were significantly less likely than those who tested negative to be significantly less likely that most or all of the customers there wore masks. While the data does not accurately track where participants ingested the coronavirus, these results suggest that eating a restaurant may have been a potential source of COVID-19 exposure for those who tested positive – especially in Restaurants where most people didn’t wear masks.
This study has, of course, some limitations. For example, this study only includes people who have actively looked for tests, so it may not include people with milder illnesses or people who simply do not have access to a testing site. The study also relies on the behaviors reported by the participants themselves, which may not have been entirely correct.
And one of the most frustrating limitations is that the data doesn’t separate those who sat inside a restaurant from those who sat outside. So it’s possible that most of the trend we’re seeing in terms of restaurants is due to indoor seating, which we already know are associated with a higher risk. However, it makes sense that restaurants – including those with outdoor seating – can uniquely promote the spread of COVID-19.
When you are thinking about managing COVID-19 risks, navigating a restaurant can be tricky – especially restaurants with indoor seating. For example, “masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, while shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude the use of masks,” the study authors write.
Even if participants in both groups wore their masks for roughly the same amount of time in public, simply eating in a restaurant creates a situation where you are unlikely to wear a mask and therefore represent a higher risk activity. Whether you’re indoors or out, it can also be difficult to stay socially detached in an environment where you have no control over the distance between tables or seats.
As local governments continue to open restaurants – including some with indoor seating – it’s important to remember that we still know exactly how this virus spreads. So it’s important to remember what we are do Know how to eat out – sit outside wherever possible, wear a mask as much as possible, opt for takeaway or delivery when you can – and remember, even with seemingly reasonable precautions, you can are unable to eliminate all risks.