Cities Across the Country Roll Back Indoor Dining as COVID-19 Cases Rise

San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and New York City are among the major municipalities increasing restrictions.

According to newly published research, restaurants, cafes, gyms, and "other crowded indoor venues" were responsible for eight out of 10 new coronavirus infections in the first few months of this pandemic. The study, which was published in the journal Nature, used cell phone data to follow 98 million people in 10 different U.S. cities to determine where they went, how long they stayed, and what the square footage of those locations was.

As the New York Times reports, that data was then cross-referenced with the infection rates in the area, and the researchers used "standard infectious disease assumptions" to determine which venues were the most high-risk when it comes to the potential for coronavirus transmission, and to track how the illness spread throughout those cities.

Restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining
Richard Levine / Alamy Stock Photo

“Restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels” Jure Leskovec, a Stanford University computer scientist, and the study's lead author, told the Times.

That research was published as state governors, city mayors, and other government officials throughout the country have been forced to confront surging numbers of new infections. As a result, indoor and group activities are facing new restrictions, or are being shut down entirely, in an attempt to slow the pandemic's spread.

On Tuesday, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy issued a new curfew for bars and restaurants, ordering them to shut down their indoor dining facilities between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. In addition, bars and restaurants can no longer seat customers at any indoor bar areas.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a similar 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants throughout his state, adding that no alcohol can be ordered for takeout or delivery after 10 p.m., although takeout and delivery food orders can continue.

In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown has announced a "two-week pause" on social gatherings and has limited the capacity inside restaurants and bars to 50 people, including employees and staff members. The maximum party size has been capped at six people. These new restrictions were effective as of Wednesday, in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's new regulations also went into effect on Wednesday at 5 p.m. In that state, indoor dining has been cut back to 50 percent of the venue's total capacity, and he is "strongly warning against" any indoor gatherings of more than 25 people. In the city of Baltimore, restaurant capacity is further reduced, and cannot exceed 25 percent of total capacity and indoor dining must stop by 11 p.m.

On Friday, San Francisco will "temporarily roll back" its plan to reopen indoor dining, and all restaurants will again be limited to takeout, delivery, or seating customers outdoors. According to a statement released by mayor London Breed, the city has experienced a 250-percent increase in new coronavirus cases since October 2.

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that everyone act responsibly to reduce the spread of the virus. Every San Franciscan needs to do their part so that we can start moving in the right direction again,” Breed said. “I know this is not the news our residents and businesses wanted to hear, but as I’ve said all along, we’re making decisions based on the data we’re seeing on the ground. Right now, our public health officials are telling us we need to take these steps to get the virus under control and save lives—so that’s what we’re doing."

Unsurprisingly, there has been some pushback from advocates for the restaurant industry. The Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) has repeatedly criticized Governor J.B. Pritzker on social media for closing indoor dining throughout the state last month. The Association claims that Illinois is the only state to have those restrictions—an assertion that has been disputed by the governor's office.

"This tweet just isn’t true—not only is indoor dining closed in other places now, but this has been true in various states for months as they’ve grappled with increasing positivity," a spokesperson for Pritzker said. (The IRA clarified to Food & Wine that it maintains Illinois is the only state with a statewide ban on indoor dining and is advocating for more flexible mitigation measures where appropriate.)

Despite the devastating impact decreased business is having on those employed by the restaurant industry, if the numbers of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths don't drastically decrease, then indoor dining could be off the table for a while.

Update, November 12: This article has been updated with the clarification of the position of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

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