Experts disagree on whether a COVID-19 surge is looming — but agree that opening indoor dining at 100% capacity is a danger to employees and patrons either way.
Some experts say a surge of a new COVID-19 strain could be arriving soon — and, if it does, could endanger restaurant workers as several states open bars and restaurants at 100% capacity and the industry sees soaring rates of new hires.
The B.1.1.7 variant of coronavirus, thought to be up to 74% more transmissible than the original strain, has been spotted in 46 states as well as Washington, D.C., according to a recent report from CNN. Yet Texas, Mississippi, and Massachusetts have loosened safety protocols statewide and opened restaurants at 100% capacity for indoor dining.
But top U.S. infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that until new cases in the United States drop below 10,000 a day, states should be more cautious, calling it "inexplicable" that state governors would ditch safety restrictions.
"I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you're only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines," Fauci noted.
Epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist Celine Gounder also told the outlet, "That strain [B.1.1.7] is increasing exponentially. It's spiking up. So we are probably right now on a tipping point of another surge."
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Commission classifies restaurant employees as at "medium" risk of contracting the virus, and while restaurant workers are in some states eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, it varies based on state. Even in those states where they are eligible, there may not be sufficient vaccine availability. And four in ten restaurant employees are low-income, making them more vulnerable to contracting the virus — often due to inability to take sick leave.
Experts say indoor dining during a pandemic is always risky business. Researchers from Stanford University found in a November report that "restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms or coffee shops." And according to the CDC, those reporting cases of coronavirus were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant in the previous two weeks than the general population.
Barbara Kowalcyk, an Ohio State University assistant professor of public health and food safety, told Eater.com, "Servers who have high person-to-person contact — because that’s where there’s a significant concern — would likely be at higher risk than those that are at the back of the restaurant in the kitchen."
While other experts see a surge in the B.1.1.7 strain as unlikely, they still maintain that loosening indoor dining restrictions is premature — and potentially dangerous for patrons and restaurant workers.
"It's completely unclear whether we’re going to have a resurgence or not," Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the infectious disease division at the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, told the American Independent Foundation. "I'm not convinced that's going to be the case." He noted that the current COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be "highly efficacious" against the new strain, and that data shows those who have previously been infected with the original COVID-19 variant may also achieve some immunity against the new strain.
But, he added, "immunologically naive people," such as those who are unvaccinated or have risk factors based on age, comorbidity, or genetics, are still a population of concern — so it poses a danger for both restaurant employees and patrons to prematurely open restaurants for indoor dining at 100% capacity.
The highest-risk situation for contracting the virus is any scenario where an individual is indoors and unmasked in close quarters with other people, he said — particularly restaurants, because "you can't wear a mask while you're eating and drinking."
Because of this, he said, patrons are at higher risk than employees — since employees are not eating and can wear a mask throughout their shift. Still, Russo added, "[indoor dining] regardless of capacity and distancing is going to be risky, particularly if there’s a significant burden of disease in the community."
"Why couldn't we just wait a couple more months, where we really could have a lot more people vaccinated?" asked Russo. "I feel that it was premature and I think most infectious disease public health officials feel it’s premature."
He added that only a fully vaccinated person should feel safe in a restaurant — and even then, while the vaccinated person is protected, they could still potentially spread the virus to any unvaccinated person with whom they come into contact.
"You could still put others in your bubble at risk," Russo said.
He suggested that to mitigate risks, restaurant workers should get vaccinated if possible in their state, wear masks at all times, and rigorously follow other health safety protocols.
"If there are people in the restaurant who aren't wearing masks and are generating infectious particles because of that, the restaurant workers should also consider eye protection," Russo added. "The eye is also a potential portal."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.