Data is beginning to emerge from contact tracing in states where indoor dining and drinking has resumed that proves that restaurants and bars can become vectors for spreading COVID-19, spelling bad news for the hospitality industry as a whole.
Dining inside a restaurant — at a table, with a server, a bottle of wine, and leisurely after-dinner drinks — isn't something that anyone in San Francisco has done since early March. And even in the first two weeks of March, it was something many of us did skittishly and with a considerable amount of anxiety, as the pandemic threat loomed just beyond the city limits.
Back in March, as bars and nightclubs closed for what we thought would just be a couple of months, restaurants did not seem like the most dangerous vectors of disease. And indeed, as states and counties across the nation have sputtered back open for business, indoor dining was one of the first things to be allowed in many places — and as recently as a month ago, it was again okay to drink indoors at a bar in Sonoma County, though that has since stopped again. As case counts got back under control here in San Francisco in June, the mayor was set to allow indoor dining to resume in mid-July, but things went sideways from there.
By the time the day came that indoor dining was scheduled to resume in San Francisco, July 13, it was already a foregone conclusion that this was on indefinite pause — and Governor Newsom, that day, issued an order for all indoor dining to shut down in counties where it had already restarted.
Restaurant owners in the Bay Area, most of them suffering financially even if they are able to do outdoor dining right now, have begun to resign themselves to the reality that a return to indoor dining could still be a ways away — even though many are hoping it's sooner rather than later.
Now, as the New York Times reports, a picture is emerging from contact tracers in multiple states that connects small outbreaks with indoor restaurants and bars — and since California officials want to avoid these kinds of headlines, they are likely to keep indoor spaces closed for the foreseeable future.
A June outbreak involving 24 people — 23 of them customers — at a taqueria in Spokane, Washington is one cautionary tale. Most of those infected were between the ages of 19 and 29, some of them asymptomatic, and they were all hanging out at the restaurant on two consecutive weekends, June 12-13 and June 19-20.
A New Orleans bartender, Brian Biondi, who was pressured into going back to work when bars reopened in the city in June, tells the Times he was nervous about becoming infected. And by late July, his fear was well founded, and he ended up with a mild case of COVID-19 that he's still recovering from.
Another New Orleans bartender, Waites Laseter, says that the days of people behaving safely around the French Quarter are already long gone — and this being the South, he already knows of a bartender friend who had a gun pulled on him for demanding a customer put on a mask.
Mark Schettler, a bar manager in New Orleans who's been an activist for protecting industry workers, tells the Times, "Bars specifically, and our industry more generally, have been made both the crash test dummies and the scapegoats [in this pandemic]."
There have yet to be a huge number of restaurant outbreaks documented, which could be the result of poor contact tracing in some states, but could also be the result of safety precautions and rapid testing and quarantining when people become infected — several restaurants in San Francisco, operating for takeout and delivery, have already had to temporarily close when employees have turned up positive.
SF chef and restaurateur Daniel Patterson (Coi, Alta CA) gives a quote to the Times suggesting that the public, and by extension politicians, don't view restaurants and their workers they same way they do white-collar industries. "Restaurants generate a lot of sales and payroll tax revenue, so some of the pressure [to reopen] came from city and state governments,” Patterson says. “And I think one of the factors behind the quick openings is that our society sees restaurants as disposable and those who work in them as disposable, so in general, people are less concerned with restaurant worker safety than they are with their own needs. They want a taco and a cold beer when they want it.”
Per the Times, a quarter of the total new cases in Louisiana since March that weren't linked to nursing homes or prisons were connected to bars and restaurants. In Colorado, 9 percent of new cases have been traced to the industry. And in Maryland, according to a governor's report, 23 percent of COVID-infected people told contact tracers they recently dined indoors at a restaurant, and another 23 percent reported dining outdoors at a restaurant.
In the Bay Area, the only significant outbreaks that have been publicized have involved nursing homes and a prison, San Quentin — a pattern which tracks with much of the rest of the country in terms of common locales for disease transmission. But one small outbreak that killed several elderly members of the Bayview community was linked to a private birthday party at a Mission District venue in early March.
The CDC continues to caution that even outdoor dining comes with risks, but instances of outdoor-transmission outbreaks still have not been well documented.
Photo: Jay Wennington