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Restaurants push back on dining-room shutdowns

The National Restaurant Association says science has yet to prove restaurants spread COVID, and urged governors to help the industry survive.
restaurants push back
Photograph: Shutterstock

The National Restaurant Association is pushing back on governors’ re-closings of restaurant dining rooms, arguing in a letter sent to a group representing the state chiefs that there is no scientific evidence linking eating places to the current surge in new coronavirus infections.

The communication, addressed to the National Governors Association (NGA), urges the chief executives to accommodate restaurants’ ability to serve customers safely and not strangle the industry with “blunt-force” closings and other crippling operational restrictions.

“We continue to support aggressive steps to protect the nation’s public health,” wrote Tom Bene, CEO of the association. “But there is an unfounded impression that restaurants are part of the problem, and we are suffering as a result of inconsistent, restrictive mandates. Tens of thousands of additional restaurant bankruptcies—and millions of lost jobs—are now more likely, while the science remains inconclusive on whether any health benefits will accrue.”

Many of the governors who have imposed new service restrictions have openly contested those assertions, citing such studies as a Stanford University report that identified restaurants and cafes as “super-spreaders” facilitating new coronavirus contaminations. They also note a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found new COVID-19 sufferers were disproportionately likely to have eaten in a restaurant during the two weeks preceding their positive tests.

The association and some of its state affiliates have criticized those and other pieces of research as being deeply flawed. “Data tying systemic community outbreaks of COVID-19 to restaurants has yet to emerge,” wrote Bene, “but we are too commonly labelled as ‘super-spreaders,’ and have become a convenient scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns.”

Restaurants, he contended, “have become a convenient scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns.”

Bene argued in the communication to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the current chairman of the NGA, that restaurants have successfully safeguarded guests and employees by following safety protocols developed by the restaurant association in collaboration with public health experts and epidemiologists. 

“To date, we have not found any systemic outbreaks of COVID-19 from the hundreds of thousands of restaurants around the country that operate within the Association’s guidance and follow local public health and safety regulations,” Bene said.

In direct opposition to that assertion, Washington, Illinois and other states have flatly cited restaurants as the most common site of coronavirus contaminations within their borders. “Don’t tell me these things don’t work and there’s no transmission within restaurants,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in shutting down restaurant dining rooms within his state for four weeks.

The industry’s largest and most potent trade group asked governors to heed five recommendations in their struggle to slow the spread of COVID:

  • Base any new service restrictions on fact, “not hypothetical simulations of transmission.” A foundation of the Stanford study is modeling based on mobile phone use, not actual tabulation of cases or contaminations.
  • When restrictions are tied to a state hitting a particular danger threshold, such as the percentage of residents testing positive for COVID, specify precisely what safety threshold the state needs to hit to have the sanctions lifted.
  • “Restaurant operations should be treated the same as other retail establishments. Shutting down indoor dining should be considered a last option.”
  • If dining rooms are closed, allow restaurants to continue offering outdoor service, takeout and delivery. Some states have suspended outdoor dining along with indoor service, saying those outside get-togethers are still gatherings where coronavirus can be spread.
  • Restaurants should receive as much advance notice as possible of changing regulations.

The letter follows announcements by five governors or chief health officers since late last week that restaurants will be required to suspend dining-room service in most or all of their states. California, Michigan, Washington, Oregon and New Mexico joined Illinois, which re-shut indoor dining areas at the start of the month, and a number of cities and counties.  More states are expected to discontinue indoor seating in the next few days.

“The coming weeks will challenge leaders in every state along with a restaurant industry that is struggling to remain afloat,” Bene wrote in concluding his letter. “The National Restaurant Association stands ready to work with you and your teams on policies and regulations that will enable our industry to safely serve our communities for the duration of the pandemic.”

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