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Restaurant diners at higher risk of catching Covid-19, air circulation may be responsible: CDC study

Adults who tested positive were about twice as likely to have eaten out 14 days before the illness struck, according to the CDC
UPDATED SEP 11, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Dining at restaurants appears to increase the odds of catching Covid-19. According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults who tested positive were about twice as likely to have eaten out 14 days before the illness struck.

People who reportedly dined at a restaurant — indoor, patio, and outdoor seating — were more likely to test positive than those whose results returned negative, the CDC wrote. The researchers arrived at this conclusion after analyzing community and close contact exposures among 314 people who showed symptoms for Covid-19.

"Participants with and without Covid-19 reported generally similar community exposures, with the exception of going to locations with on-site eating and drinking options," the CDC said. "In addition to dining at a restaurant, case-patients were more likely to report going to a bar/coffee shop, but only when the analysis was restricted to participants without close contact with persons with known Covid-19 before illness onset."

What makes restaurants risky is air circulation. Factors such as direction, ventilation and intensity of airflow might affect how the virus moves and spreads, even if people follow social distancing measures and wear masks. There is another problem: masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking.
In this study, researchers enrolled 314 adults who had symptoms and were tested for Covid-19 in July in California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah and Washington. Of them, 154 tested positive and 160 had negative results. 

(Getty Images)

The analysis found that 42% of those who tested positive reportedly crossed paths with at least one person who had Covid-19, compared with 14% of those who tested negative. As for mask-wearing, 71% of the participants with Covid-19 and 74% of those who tested negative said they always used them in public. "Most close contact exposures were to family members, consistent with household transmission of SARS-CoV-2," the CDC said.

The researchers saw no significant differences in risks between Covid-19 positive patients and negative participants after shopping, gatherings with less than 10 persons in a home, going to the office or a salon or a gym, using public transportation, or attending church or religious gathering.  However, participants who tested positive were more likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks before the illness' onset.

"The increased risk makes sense; it's easy to wear a mask in stores or in places of worship, but it's nearly impossible to do so while eating and drinking, Dr Todd Rice, a co-author of the report and an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told NBC News. "If people are going to eat out, they need to be thoughtful about how they're going to do it," he added.

Commenting on the study, the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) said: "As always, pick-up and delivery remain very low-risk options to obtain food from our favorite bars, taverns, and restaurants." The hospitality industry has responded and evolved to continue to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to their customers," Steven Mandernach, Executive Director of the AFDO, said in a statement.