Different states have different policies on how to handle contact tracing.

By Mike Pomranz
August 10, 2020
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Contact tracing is considered an important tool in battling COVID-19. The hope is that if we know who infected people came into contact with, we can control coronavirus’s spread. To aid with contact tracing, in some parts of the country, bars and restaurants are asking patrons for their contact info; if a sick person was found out to be in the restaurant with you, in theory, you’ll be told. And contact tracing can be helpful in other ways: Last week, tracing data from the Ohio Department of Health was shown to have played a role in Governor Mike DeWine’s decision to end liquor sales at 10 p.m., according to Cleveland.com.

But in some areas, not only are restaurants not collecting info, positive coronavirus cases aren’t even being asked if they’ve been to any restaurants or bars. As Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) revealed in a report published on Friday, it's currently happening in that state.

On-street outdoor dining on a Saturday morning at a breakfast, brunch, and lunch joint in downtown Portland, Oregon, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
hapabapa/Getty Images

”The actual case investigation interview is quite lengthy,” Ann Thomas, a senior health advisor at the Oregon Health Authority, told OPB, explaining that tracers and investigators are taxed on time. “It’s already an hour, so we can’t ask every little thing that you and I think of or would like to know. We don’t ask if you were in a bar or restaurant.”

According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, all 50 states have some sort of approach to contact tracing: Some are in-house while others are contracted out; some are centralized, others decentralized. But according to their breakdown of each state’s process—which, importantly, isn’t official or comprehensive—only two states, Florida and Kentucky, have mentions of contacting restaurants if a diner was infected. This isn’t to say that other states aren’t notifying these establishments, but it does demonstrate that restaurants aren’t necessarily on the top of a tracer’s mind.

Of course, for diners, the question becomes does this matter? It’s worth noting that a common definition of a “contact” is someone you’ve been within six feet of for at least 15 minutes. In that case, though the people you dined out with were contacts, the rest of the restaurant likely was not. And just because you were in a restaurant with a COVID-positive person doesn’t mean they were in “contact” with you. Along those lines, Thomas stressed that, in Oregon, they’re focusing on getting people to follow the rules, which should limit contact numbers regardless. “We want people taking the steps they can to protect themselves,” Thomas told OPB. “The hand-washing, the face coverings, the physical distancing.”

Still, if the COVID-19 pandemic already has you on edge about eating out, this may just be one more reason you choose to continue to support your favorite restaurants by ordering takeout.