CDC's recent moves have the industry scratching its head

The National Restaurant Association is among the parties awaiting clarification, especially on air circulation and filtration.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Recent pronouncements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), usually the nation’s superhero in combatting public health dangers, have left the legions dependent on its scientific guidance with more confusion than clarity.

Count the restaurant industry squarely among them.

Two recent postings on the agency’s website were rife with implications for the business. One, a study that correlated new COVID-19 diagnoses with the activities of test subjects beforehand, suggested that restaurants might be virtual petri dishes for coronavirus. That was a springboard for news stories asserting that restaurants were a danger.

And that might have been the less-worrisome of the two proclamations because its flaws were obvious and its findings were easy to qualify, if not refute outright. More worrisome was a matter still up in the air, quite literally.

A week later, the agency quietly posted an assertion that COVID-19 could be spread through an undetectable mist of germs that can float in the air for hours. Keeping customers and staff six feet apart would be futile if someone walked through that airborne cloud on their way out the door, possibly even if they’re wearing a cloth or paper mask.

Three days later, the agency yanked that warning off its website, saying it was posted prematurely. The inference was that more crunching of the data was to come.

Reports from other public-health authorities have similarly raised the possibility of coronavirus lurking in the air. The CDC had yet to affirm or refute them, and the about-face provided no insight, effectively foisting the analysis on industries with a clear stake in the upshot.

“We’re going through it right now,” said Larry Lynch, SVP of certification and operations for the National Restaurant Association. “We think there is some transmission that’s coming from aerosole, but no one can say definitively. When I hear [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director and global health authority] Fauci say, ‘We really don’t know,’ that means something.”

The association is studying the issue with the intent of updating its anti-COVID guidance for operators on air circulation and filtration, a topic that many local jurisdictions have addressed on their own. Restaurants in New York City, for instance, are required to employ “enhanced” air circulation, filtration systems if they wish to reopen their dining rooms on Sept. 30. Compliance must be verified by a certified HVAC technician.

Florida’s Miami-Dade County requires that restaurants keep their windows and doors open and their air conditioners constantly on. They’re forbidden to use the automatic function, where the system cycles on and off to keep the air at a certain temperature, to ensure a flow. 

Other jurisdictions have advised eating places to also maximize air flow within their dining rooms.

“What is that the right circulation? How do we perfect that air circulation?  I haven’t even finished reading all the science available on those topics,” says the restaurant association’s Lynch. “it’s coming down to it could be a factor, but we don’t know how much yet. From a CDC perspective, once we understand what the real danger might be, we can understand what mediation works.”

The agency’s earlier report, correlating restaurant visits with new COVID-19 cases, didn’t suggest additional efforts to safeguard restaurant guests and employees. What did the restaurant association take away from that research? “Nothing,” says Lynch.

“We don’t want to risk transmissions in restaurants,” he stresses, noting that safety is in the industry’s best business interest. “We want to be sure we’re doing everything we can to protect guests and employees.”

If those parties and the host facility follow recommended safety protocols, “the risk is low,” he says, quickly adding, “we can’t find evidence of a systematic outbreak from restaurants.”

Restaurants’ protective efforts are likely to evolve as more is learned about coronavirus, says Lynch. “This is an ongoing process. We’ve been hit with a pandemic the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

“We’ve come up with really good mitigation guidance,”he continues. “I think we’re going to learn more as states reopen.”

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