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How to make restaurants safer during the pandemic

Topic: How to make restaurants safer during the pandemic

It’s a cruel irony that the things that make a restaurant appealing are precisely what currently make it dangerous—the intimacy, the coziness, the groups of people deep in conversation, whiling away the hours over drinks and a meal. Eating in a restaurant is one of the riskiest things you can do during the coronavirus pandemic.

To understand why, you need to think about the latest science around how covid-19 passes from person to person. The official line from the World Health Organization from the start of the pandemic has been that the coronavirus is mostly spread by the droplets we generate as we talk, sneeze, or cough. However, the evidence has been mounting for months now that aerosols—which are smaller than droplets and can hang in the air like smoke—are a significant route for infections, if not the main one. This would explain why virtually every recorded coronavirus outbreak has occurred indoors.

Sadly, the advice to the public still hasn’t caught up. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has only just started to acknowledge the possibility of airborne transmission, and many countries don’t mention it in their official guidance. As a result, many restaurants are still stuck following advice that simply isn’t reflective of the latest science—obsessing over cleaning, wearing visors (which don’t protect you from aerosols), and setting up plastic dividers between tables. Some of these measures might be marginally useful, but they mostly amount to “pandemic theater”—interventions that provide the appearance of safety, but little in the way of real protection.

Why, exactly, are restaurants so risky? First off, they tend to be noisy spaces. People talk loudly, expelling more air than usual—and thus more potentially virus-laden aerosols. Researchers are yet to work out precisely how much virus you have to breathe in, or how long you have to be exposed to someone shedding viral particles, to get infected. The CDC estimates it’s possible to get infected from just 15 minutes of close proximity, but the reported cases of infections in restaurants “all involve an infected and susceptible person sharing the air for a significant amount of time, often 30 minutes up to a few hours,” says Jose-Luis Jimenez, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has studied aerosols for two decades. It’s also possible, theoretically, to catch covid-19 through the aerosols left behind by an infected person who has already left the room—but there aren’t any confirmed cases of this occurring, according to Jimenez. The virus loses infectivity with time, “typically in one to two hours,” he says.

Topic Discussed: How to make restaurants safer during the pandemic