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COVID roundup: Indoor dining ban re-imposed on Pennsylvania, NYC and Baltimore, extended in Washington

Meanwhile, two new studies tie contaminations to in-person restaurant service.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Thursday was a pivotal day in the fight against coronavirus, with regulators clearing the way for vaccinations to start within the next two or three business days. But casualty figures for virtually every state except Hawaii were chilling reminders of how much devastation the nation faces before widespread inoculations tame the pandemic, a stretch of broken glass likely to extend through the second quarter, according to public health experts.

With the near-term threat intensifying, state and local authorities ended the week with a flurry of new restrictions on restaurants, which fought back with a combination of civil disobedience and legal actions. Here’s a roundup:

Pennsylvania suspends indoor dining
Starting at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 11, restaurants will be required to limit their operations to takeout, delivery and outdoor service. Indoor dining will be suspended for at least three weeks.  The measures were imposed by Gov. Tom Wolf, who tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

This order is devasting to the hospitality industry,” said John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. “Hundreds of businesses are teetering on the brink of financial disaster, and the livelihood of thousands of employees are on the line. The governor offers us nothing but lip service by acknowledging the hospitality industry's precarious financial situation when our expertise is repeatedly ignored when drafting mitigation orders.”

2 studies indict restaurants as problem areas
In announcing the rollback, Wolf cited a new study as justification of the move. The analysis by JP Morgan Chase of credit card data and Johns Hopkins statistics showed that an upswing in restaurant spending closely correlates to a surge in COVID-19 infections three weeks later.

The study was one of two released this week that question the effectiveness of standard restaurant safeguards. A new piece of research from South Korea found that keeping patrons and staff six feet apart won’t prevent the coronavirus from being spread. Ditto for limiting exposure times to 15 minutes; the research showed that a transmission can occur in as little as five minutes. Indeed, the findings indicate that 20 feet would be a more effective social distance.

The problem, according to the data published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science, is that the coronavirus may be spreading through restaurants’ air conditioning systems.

As Cuomo warned, dining rooms will close in NYC
Restaurants in New York City, one of the industry’s largest and most celebrated urban markets, will be required to once again suspend indoor dining, starting Monday. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had warned earlier this week that the city would likely see its inventory of available ICU beds dip below 15% of total capacity, the trigger point for imposing new safety restrictions. The suspension of interior service will continue until the availability of beds rises above that threshold. Restaurants can continue to offer takeout, delivery and outdoor dining.

“Yes, there will be hardship,” says Cuomo. “But we have accommodated in other ways.” He cited the city’s easing of restrictions on outdoor dining, which “is not only permitted but has been aggressively pursued.”

Spot shutdowns in Maryland
Baltimore, Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County have all suspended onsite restaurant dining, through on different days. Indoor and outdoor seating will be suspended as of 5 p.m. today in Baltimore. Restaurants will be limited to takeout and delivery in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s starting Wednesday.

An executive order to halt indoor restaurant dining within Montgomery County, the densely populated Maryland suburb outside Washington, D.C., has already been drafted, but is awaiting approval by the County Council. Outdoor dining will be permitted in that jurisdiction.

Washington extends closures of restaurant dining rooms
Gov. Jay Inslee announced earlier in the week that his suspension of indoor restaurant dining will not expire as planned on Monday. The discontinuation was originally intended to run for three weeks. But the state’s chief executive said conditions warrant an extension of the partial shutdown for another three weeks, which will limit restaurants to takeout, delivery and outdoor service unitl Jan. 4

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