The risk of catching the coronavirus is much higher indoors.
November 20, 2020
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Thinking too hard about saliva can really ruin a nice meal. And to eat inside a restaurant in 2020 requires ignoring the harsh reality of drool: the residue left behind by a chip dipped in a shared bowl of guacamole, the flecks of spit flung loose by a drunken laugh, and the veritable makeout session that is sampling someone else’s cocktail.
The unfortunate ubiquity of mucus is why restaurants, it brings me no pleasure to report, are contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Indoor public places, including restaurants, played a significant role in the spread of COVID-19 this spring, according to scientific analyses of cellphone data. In a September study, people who tested positive for COVID-19 were more than twice as likely as those who tested negative to report eating in a restaurant recently. Talking with someone who has COVID-19 for 30 minutes or longer—about the time between your bloomin’-onion appetizer and molten-chocolate dessert—more than doubles your odds of catching it.
So why on earth would anyone eat inside a restaurant right now?
This is the question I mulled as I walked up and down the Crystal City strip in Virginia last week, dressed in a mask and an Ann Taylor sweater. I had journeyed to this chunk of suburban Washington, D.C., near the Pentagon, because, despite its concrete-y soullessness, it has the advantage of being home to several restaurants in a row. And they are popular restaurants—not your TGI Fridays, but not your two-tables-and-a-vegan-tagine either. In all, I approached and interviewed about a dozen random people as they walked out of restaurants in Crystal City, and later in another little patch of Northern Virginia called the Mosaic District, a mixed-use development off a giant highway.
These were not anti-mask COVID-19 deniers; people were clearly following the official rules. Nearly everyone on the street wore a mask, including the diners as soon as they exited their restaurant of choice. A man watching TV from the bar inside a Thai place had a mask on. So did the women walking down the street talking about their pharmacy-school applications.
Still, lots of people were eating indoors, even though it was a balmy, 66-degree night in early November. Unless you’re extremely plugged into the public-health world, there’s little reason you would pause before eating inside. Many of the places I passed had signs outside announcing We’re Open! Like 44 other states as of this writing, Virginia hadn’t banned eating indoors, even though the day after my interviews there were 14 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in Fairfax County and 17 in Arlington. That’s well over the 10-per-100,000 measure that Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me recently was her ceiling for socializing indoors with friends and family only.
Outside McCormick & Schmick’s, a chain seafood place, I stopped three men who had just had a business dinner together. They refused to give me their full names, so I’ll identify them by the color of their masks.
These three seemed relatively unconcerned about the virus. One of them, Red Mask, said he was still going to the gym; Blue Mask said he had gone to the barber recently and was impressed with how long his hairdresser spent wiping down his chair. (This is largely for show; surfaces are now thought to be less important to the spread of the virus than aerosols and droplets from other people). Black Mask told me that he was willing to go into any open restaurant. “I’m not in a high-risk category, so if I got it, it wouldn’t bother me that much,” he reasoned.
They asked me, somewhat aggressively, if I would eat inside a restaurant. I said I probably would not. And then of course I sounded weird, because why wouldn’t you eat in a place that’s open?
Each of us, to get through this terrible time, has clung to some coronavirus factoid or another that we believe protects us. Here’s mine: The odds of catching the coronavirus are about 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. This year I have eaten on patios, in backyards, and on benches outside. But I haven’t sat down inside a restaurant since March, and probably won’t for many more months. “Indoor eating and bars and coffee shops are among the riskiest activities you can do. Outdoors is dramatically better,” says Alex Huffman, an aerosols researcher at the University of Denver.
Several of the restaurant patrons I talked with didn’t share this belief. One man, Steve Harris, even suggested that he was taking a bigger risk talking with me outdoors, with a mask on, than he was eating indoors, without a mask. (Our conversation was much less risky, but I felt awful nonetheless.) Think about when you’re standing on a back patio at a friend’s house, he said, just having a couple of beers, and the sun is setting. You can see peoples’ spit glimmer as it flies out of their mouth into the twilight air. Disgusting, right? Probably more disgusting than having a Blue Creek cheeseburger at Ted’s Montana Grill in November 2020. (Except that indoors, these speech droplets stay in the air for eight to 14 minutes. Not everyone would know this, because Donald Trump and his coronavirus advisers constantly spread incorrect information about the virus.)
Most people told me that they wouldn’t eat at just any restaurant; they’d have to see “precautions” in place. Peoples’ desired precautions ranged from the waitstaff wearing masks to air purifiers to seeing tables spaced apart with partitions separating them. One couple, told me, charmingly, that during the pandemic they will eat only in restaurants they are already “familiar with,” as though knowing your way around a menu can protect you from an invisible virus.
The thing is, the precautions restaurants advertise aren’t all very effective, according to experts. One woman who was dining out with her boyfriend told me that she likes to see temperature checks at restaurants. That makes sense, because retail establishments have been ostentatiously taking their patrons’ temperatures for months now. But temperature checks are security theater; not everyone who has COVID-19 has a fever, and a fever can be caused by something other than COVID-19. Measures such as spacing tables apart and installing air purifiers can be helpful, experts told me, but they can’t eliminate the risk entirely. Partitions don’t do much, Huffman says: “They could actually help the aerosol pool on one side of it by disrupting the whole ventilation flow.”
Near the Mosaic District, Silver Diner displayed a sign that claimed the establishment was Making Indoor Dining Like Outdoors, in part through the use of ultraviolet lights, both inside its HVAC system and beaming toward surfaces. Do Hyung Kim, who had just finished up a meal with his wife inside the diner, told me that the UV lights made him feel safer, since he had read about them in the newspaper. But two experts I spoke with said there’s still not much evidence that UV lights prevent infection. “The data behind that is not definitive,” said Tom Tsai, a health-policy professor at Harvard.
Why are people willing to risk it all for a T-bone? In general, humans tend to fall victim to “comparative optimism,” in which we believe that bad things are more likely to happen to other people. There’s still a relatively low likelihood of contracting COVID-19 during any given restaurant outing, but “people aren’t particularly good at perceiving that kind of risk,” says Toby Wise, a researcher at Caltech who has studied coronavirus risk perception.
People don’t learn from statistics, such as cases per 100,000, but rather from their own experiences, says Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and the author of The Biggest Bluff, about the psychology of gambling. Eating at restaurants is comforting and familiar, which breeds “overconfidence and the downplaying of downside risk,” she says. How could something so fun hurt us? Plus, it’s not like authority figures are telling us to stay out of restaurants. “When there’s a muddled message, you don’t err on the side of safety,” Konnikova says. “You err on the side of desire, especially if you’re tired of quarantine.”
Though some of my interviewees were drawn to the soft glow of a noodle joint because of their boredom at home or their desire for a date night, others were venturing out for the good of the restaurants themselves. With no additional coronavirus aid coming, “the money we just spent in there is gonna make sure that people are employed,” a man named Mark told me in Crystal City. “It’s absolutely important for all of us, if we’re comfortable, that we should do that. Because I’ll tell you what: The economy is our most important asset in our country.” This is the bind the government has put us in: Risk your life to eat inside a beloved restaurant, or it might not exist when this is all over.
I asked all the people I spoke with whether they would be angry at government officials, the restaurant, or any other powers that be if they caught COVID-19 from eating indoors. They all said they wouldn’t be. After all, restaurants are just one of the many types of businesses that remain open; they could have contracted it anywhere.
In part because our leaders have let the virus spread uncontrolled, it sometimes seems like it is an unstoppable threat and, like the weather, there’s not much you can do about it. That thinking can lead to a certain kind of fatalism. When I talked with Gabrielle Velasco and George Kosmidis, a young couple outside a Spanish restaurant called Jaleo, Kosmidis said he was still going into an office regularly. So “I think there’s a level of risk no matter what you do,” he said. Velasco added that she was nevertheless frustrated with the overall government pandemic response. If you think about it, she said, the service staffers, who work in close quarters all day, are taking on a bigger risk than the diners are. Why not risk a little when other people are risking so much?
Reached for comment about the state’s indoor-dining situation, a spokesperson for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he “is working closely with state and local health experts, and he will continue to base his decisions in data, science, and public health.” A few days after my interviews, Northam announced that he would require restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. and to close by midnight. Of course, how much time people spend inside restaurants before then is still entirely up to them.
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