After spending months locked in our homes, eager for social interaction, you may find yourself wanting to justify grabbing a quick bite with a friend despite the risk of COVID-19. However, this MIT Technology Review article proves that not only are restaurants the riskiest location when it comes to the coronavirus, but you are actually four times more likely to catch the virus in a restaurant than in the gym, which is the second most dangerous location.
Safegraph, a company that collects anonymous location data from smartphones, curated a team of epidemiologists, computer scientists, and social scientists from Stanford University and Northwestern University. Together, Safegraph and their new team used smartphone data to predict and understand where most people were catching COVID-19. To do this, researchers tracked nearly 100 million people through their phones in 10 of the biggest US cities from March 1 to May 1, collecting the movements of people going to gyms, grocery stores, restaurants, places of worship, etc.
After accumulating this smartphone data, they used it to predict the level of risk each location had based on three categories: “how big the venue was, how long people stayed inside it, and how many people were likely to be infectious in the given area.” After comparing their predictions to the official records of cases, it was proven that their new prediction model was accurate. Like one may have already guessed: the smaller the venue is, the longer people stay inside it, and the larger the number of people inside the venue are all of the factors that make a location more dangerous when it comes to catching COVID-19.
Epidemiology has proved that the three factors stated above make someone more susceptible to getting COVID-19 because the virus spreads most prominently through respiratory droplets. These droplets can be spread through breathing, talking, eating, etc. In restaurants, people don’t wear masks, allowing these respiratory droplets to infect everyone around them, as they can land on surfaces as well as drift through the air. Another danger with restaurants and not wearing a mask is being asymptomatic: unknowingly contracting the virus, having no symptoms, and then going to restaurants, where you take your mask off, allowing the virus to spread to all those around you.
If you acquire an asymptomatic or mild coronavirus case, research suggests that your immune system works the same as it normally would for other viruses. When you come in contact with COVID-19, your innate immune system immediately reacts; it is the first line of defense in your immune system and releases a rapid response. This quick response is nonspecific, meaning that it is recognized as simply a pathogen, with minimal specifics. As that rapid response begins, your adaptive immunity begins to develop and form antibodies to fight the specific virus you are infected with. Because this response is more specific to the virus you have, it is also slower acting, which is why viruses take days or weeks to recover from.
Anyway, going back to the research: Using this new prediction model, the research team simulated different restaurant situations, such as 10% capacity, 50% capacity, and even full capacity. The model suggested that implementing a 20% maximum capacity in restaurants would cut infection rates by 80%. However, from an economic standpoint, a 20% maximum capacity would result in a likely loss of 42% of customers during “peak hours.”
So, it is crucial to think about what is more important: minimizing infection rates or keeping businesses alive? Personally, I think it is necessary to find a balance where people can stay safe, and businesses can remain open, especially small ones. Restaurants have already begun thinking of safe and innovative ways to dine. For example, a restaurant in NYC has an outdoor patio with large, private pods where groups of people can eat out without exposure to the people around them. Though even this system has its loopholes and issues, it is a step in the right direction.
Will you be going out to eat this week?