Participants who tested positive were three times as likely to report having dined out or gone for drinks at bars and coffee shops.
On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of a study of COVID-19 patients and the activities they participated in and the interactions they had in the two weeks before they tested positive for the respiratory illness.
The researchers surveyed 314 adults in 10 U.S. states (California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington) who received a COVID-19 test in July. Of those who participated in the study, 154 of them received a positive test result and 160 tested negative.
First, the unsurprising part: 42 percent of the ‘case-patients’—those who tested positive—reported that they’d had close contact with someone who was known to have COVID-19 before developing symptoms, compared to only 14 percent among those who were in the control (negative-test) group. For both groups, the majority of close contact (51 percent) was with family members. And more than 70 percent of both groups reported wearing a face covering or mask when they were in public.
But the CDC researchers also learned that case-patients were significantly more likely (42 percent) than control-group patients (14 percent) to have reported eating at a restaurant or going to a bar or coffee shop before they became ill. “Exposures and activities where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, including going to places that offer on-site eating or drinking, might be important risk factors for acquiring COVID-19,” the study authors wrote. “As communities reopen, efforts to reduce possible exposures at locations that offer on-site eating and drinking options should be considered to protect customers, employees, and communities.”
Whether or not they’d visited a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop was the biggest differentiating factor between the two groups. Around half of the participants reported that they had gone shopping or had been inside a home with fewer than 10 other people in the 14 days before their tests, but there were “no significant differences” between the positive and negative groups in those cases.
Eating at a restaurant also seemed to be a bigger determining factor for a positive test than a number of other activities, including going to an office, visiting a hair salon, going to a gym, riding on public transportation, or attending a religious service.
“In this investigation, 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 study said. “Direction, ventilation, and intensity of airflow might affect virus transmission, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance. Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use.”
The CDC did acknowledge that there were limitations to this study, including the fact that its “I went to a restaurant” option didn’t differentiate between indoor or outdoor dining, and that bars and coffee shops were combined into one category, despite the fact that they “might represent different exposures.”
All that said, the CDC’s “Considerations for Restaurants and Bars” still says that the lowest risk scenario for dining out is going through a drive-through, getting takeout or delivery, or using curbside pickup. The highest risk is eating on-site at a location with indoor and outdoor seating, at a venue that does not reduce its seating capacity and doesn’t space its tables at least six feet apart.
But, at this point, surely we all know not to dine in that kind of place, right? Right?!