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A real wolf this time? A ‘no’ may not matter

Fears of Ebola, real or imagined, demand attention.

Between the time I write this and you read it, the world could have come apart. The pressing question is, What’s more likely to do the ripping, perception or reality? 

It’s tough not to be alarmed by both since the day a Liberian man tested positive at a Texas hospital for Ebola. Government and health officials have said there’s no reason to fear an outbreak in the United States akin to what happened in West Africa. But, shaken confidence aside, what about the accompanying affliction that threatens the nation’s social and economic life? No army of health experts in hazmat suits can temper public hysteria once it takes flame.

In the Cleveland suburbs, a school district suspended classes at two facilities because a staff member had traveled in the same commercial airliner that had earlier carried a nurse who was diagnosed with Ebola. Schools were also closed in Dallas, where the nurse and a colleague had contracted the disease from Patient Zero.

Irrational fears already have affected restaurants in communities with large West African immigrant populations, such as the suburbs of Minneapolis and Detroit, where a visitor from Liberia was being monitored at press time by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 112 people who had at least potential contact with the three confirmed victims were being watched for symptoms (the list at one time had been as high as 172.)

It’s not crying wolf to warn of a broader swath of restaurants being victimized if the hysteria rises, as it almost certainly will if more people are infected.

Indeed, at a press conference intended to reassure residents of the Cleveland area, Summit County Health Commissioner Gene Nixon specified that the nurse “was not at restaurants. She was not at pizza parlors.” The stab at fostering calm was undercut to some degree by reports that the nurse did visit a store, prompting five employees of the place to be quarantined for 21 days.

There already are calls for travel restrictions and heightened security at our borders. Seventy health care workers from Patient Zero’s hospital agreed to forgo restaurant visits for 21 days. A company that manufactures and markets packaged meals that can be stored long term for emergencies said its sales jumped 300 percent after the first U.S. cases were reported. 

By all outward signs, we’re mobilizing for wartime. That doesn’t mean we’ll actually enter a battle, but the mindset is there.

Because Ebola apparently can’t be transmitted via food, there’s very little information about protections for people to take in kitchens or dining rooms,  at least for now. The CDC’s only directive in that regard: Don’t eat raw meat from bats or nonhuman primates.  

So what can an individual restaurateur do? If any of the information cited here is news to you, vow to stay better informed. Education and common sense are the best checks on panic. This is a time when every reasonable business person can be a foot soldier combating misinformation.

We intend to do our part by covering what happens, if anything. Remember, there were similar fears about SARS a decade or so ago.

We know that even reporting on the topic opens us to accusations of stoking the fear. We’re not about to be sensational or irresponsible. But we’re not going to be guilty of denial, either. The industry deserves to be kept apprised of what could be a real threat, even if it’s not a true health issue. So keep an eye on our online coverage.

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