Restaurants may be a key source of virus spread, Tri-County data suggests

Health agency has received many complaints about lack of distancing


Restaurants are the second most-common place that people who contract COVID-19 say they went in the 14 days before their illness began, according to Tri-County Health Department data.

“According to our most recent exposure data, restaurants/cafés are second to small private gatherings as to where people have visited and could have been exposed,” said John Douglas, head of Tri-County Health, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. “Large private gatherings is (the) third-highest listing, followed by offices/work, then churches/religious gathering.”

More than 1,000 people reported having attended a small private gathering in the 14 days before their illness began, according to the data as of Nov. 25. About 720 people reported going to a restaurant or café, and 540 noted going to a large private gathering. About 390 had gone to an office or workplace, and 280 said they went to church or another religious gathering.

Tri-County has seen that between 25% and 30% of people report going to more than one setting, and in those cases, officials can’t determine which place is the more likely source of exposure to COVID-19, Douglas said.

Tri-County was working on ranking the most frequently visited places for the roughly 70% of respondents who listed only one location, but officials hadn’t completed that as of Nov. 20.

How well the trends apply across Tri-County’s population also could depend on variation in whether Tri-County’s staff have contact information for people who contract COVID-19 and whether people answer the phone, can remember their possible exposure sources, or will provide complete and accurate information, Douglas said. But that’s a caveat of data like this wherever it’s collected, he added.

“Having said that, this ranking has been consistent since we started tracking it, and is consistent across the three counties we serve,” Douglas said. “It also aligns with exposure information across the nation. Restaurants are also one of our biggest categories of `complaints received’ … for overcrowding and not adhering to social distancing. Nearly 50% of cases are between the ages of 18 (and) 44, which is an age group more likely to frequent bars and restaurants.”

The data are available here. Scroll about one-third of the way down the page and click “exposures.”

A study of symptomatic outpatients from 11 United States health care facilities found that adults with positive COVID-19 test results were about twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than those with negative test results, according to Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Reports of exposures in restaurants have been linked to air circulation,” the report says. “Direction, ventilation and intensity of airflow might affect virus transmission, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance.”

The report also notes masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, “whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use.”


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