The hospitality sector’s protests around the world over bans on their activities, limiting them at best to selling takeaways, contrasts with the scientific evidence: well-meaning restaurant and bar owners insist they have complied scrupulously with health and safety measures, but there is no getting away from the fact that a business where people must remove their masks in order to eat or drink, has increased infection rates.
At the aggregate level, the first study to portray the obvious correlation between restaurant openings and the spread of COVID-19 was published in June by Johns Hopkins University, using data on credit card spending by 30 million customers in the United States and correlating it to the evolution of the pandemic in each state. The relationship was clear: the more spending on restaurants, the greater the number of infections.
That study was followed by another, carried out by Stanford University and published on November 10. Using a very different methodology, the outcome was nevertheless the same: researchers tracked the smartphones of more than 98 million people between March and May, taking into account the number of times their subjects went to restaurants, gyms and hotels, and concluding that if restaurants were authorized to open at full capacity, they would be responsible for more than 600,000 infections in a city like Chicago, and that, in addition, the distribution was irregular and impossible to predict: 10% of the premises were responsible for 85% of the expected infections.
The problem restaurants face has nothing to do with hygiene or any other measures, but on something beyond their control: the presence of super-spreaders. Basically, if you share space in a restaurant with one of these super-spreaders, your chances of becoming infected are very high, regardless of whether the restaurant has diligently complied with hygiene measures, replacing its menu with a QR code, providing hydro-alcoholic gel or ensuring that its staff keep their masks on at all times. Simply put, contagion is something completely beyond their control.
This study, recently published in Nature, is the worst news for restaurant owners, because no matter how hard they try, they cannot disassociate themselves from their role in spreading infection. The hospitality industry plays a huge role in our economies, but we have to accept that the only way, right now, to control the pandemic is to limit restaurants and bars to takeaways, which will still require the strictest standards of hygiene.
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As Science magazine noted in April, bringing COVID-19 under control will mean a long and painful period of trial and error. And during that period of trial and error, the role of restaurants, bars and other businesses that tend to confine their customers to indoor spaces where they have to dispense with their masks, has already been perfectly established by science beyond any discussion. All that is left to discuss is how to compensate staff and owners during the lockdown. Germany, for example, is paying 75% of turnover to companies that have been forced to close due to the lockdowns.
In short, the cumulated evidence, data and scientific studies is incontrovertible. So sadly, until we have a mass vaccination program underway, the only responsible thing to do is to close restaurants and bars. A harsh measure? Sure, but we shouldn’t forget that we’re in the middle of global pandemic that is still expanding and claiming lives with each day that passes.