Questions arise after CDC study links COVID risk to dining at restaurants


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Eating at restaurants comes with a higher risk of catching the coronavirus than other activities do, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests.

The study published this week finds adults taking part who tested positive for COVID-19 were roughly twice as likely to have said they dined at a restaurant during the two weeks before they started feeling sick.

Ben Chapman, a food science expert at North Carolina State University and one of the architects of the state’s “Count on Me NC” program of best safety practices for restaurants during the pandemic, says the study “reinforces a couple of things we’ve known from the start” — such as the risks inherent with being in the proximity of other people — but also leaves some key questions unanswered.

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The study surveyed 314 adults from 11 outpatient healthcare facilities in 10 states, including North Carolina, who “actively sought” testing for COVID-19 in July after showing symptoms of the disease — with 154 of them testing positive.

CDC personnel asked them about the activities in which they had participated during the 14 days before symptoms appeared, and for most of those activities the rates were similar among those who tested positive and negative.

But the study found that those testing positive “were approximately twice as likely” to have dined at a restaurant during that time period.

On one hand, it seems like common sense: Wearing a mask while eating or drinking is virtually impossible.

However, the study comes with several obvious limitations.

The sample size is relatively small. The ten states were at different stages of the reopening process and with different regulations for indoor and outdoor dining. 

The interviewers did not ask if those involved in the study dined indoors or outdoors, nor did they specify what restaurants they visited.

“One of the concerns or criticisms I have of the study is that it really just talks about a restaurant,” Chapman said. “We don’t know anything about the specific restaurants, and that, as someone who focuses on the science of this really matters. 

“A restaurant that isn’t taking this seriously, hasn’t done any training, thinks that the pandemic or the virus is a hoax, really is not the same as a place where everything’s apart over 6 feet; when servers are coming to tables, they’re wearing face coverings; they’re requiring patrons to have face coverings when they’re not at their tables,” he added. “You can’t really compare those things.”

The study points to COVID-19 exposures in restaurants being linked to air circulation, with the “direction, ventilation and intensity of airflow” possibly affecting its transmission even if social distancing guidelines and the use of face coverings are in place.

Chapman says those things are critical to monitor.

“When it comes to restaurants, one thing that we really have to keep in mind is how restaurants practice social distancing, enforce face coverings, practices that we know that reduce risk really can impact the likelihood of transmission,” he said.

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