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Indoor dining is slowly reopening across the country, providing a much-needed boost to struggling restaurants just in time for Valentine’s Day while increasing worries that it will lead to a new spike in coronavirus cases.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allowed New York City restaurants to open indoor dining on Friday and Maryland’s most populous county will do the same Sunday.

The steps are leading to criticism from public health officials.

“Now is the wrong time to dine indoors. The science suggests that even though the cases are declining total, hidden in those declining case rates are a portion of the new more transmissible variants,” said Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. 

“We are intentionally giving up what we know works to prevent transmission,” he added. “You’re sitting down for more than 15 minutes with people that are outside your household. You’re taking off your mask indoors.”

More contagious new variants are emerging in the United States from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. To stay safe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding large crowds and being indoors with people outside your household.

“Indoor dining with masks off is really of concern, it’s still a risk at this time,” said Melissa Perry, chair of the department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University.

State and local officials are coming under pressure as case numbers drop to allow indoor dining to take place.

The restaurant industry has been devastated throughout the pandemic and total restaurant and food service sales were down $240 billion last year compared to what the industry expected going into 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. 

Valentine’s Day is typically a high revenue time for restaurants, especially high-end establishments that cater to the special occasion.

Caroline Styne, the owner of Lucques Group in California, said that one of her restaurants made almost $50,000 in revenue on Valentine’s Day in 2020.

This year is much different. Now, she has only seven employees working at that restaurant in Los Angeles, where indoor dining remains closed.

“It’s a night lost for us, just as Christmas was, just as New Year’s was,” she said.

“We’ve been killed every holiday this year. Restaurants run on such a thin profit margin as it is that those holidays are of huge importance to us. That’s where you really make those profits. Those are the days that count. You do all the other days of the year just to get to those holidays,” she said.

The National Restaurant Association called on the National Governors Association and the U.S. Conference of Mayors in November to take into account several considerations when determining whether to shut down or scale back restaurants.

They requested that restaurant operations be treated the same as other retail establishments and that shutting down indoor dining be considered a last option.

The alcohol industry has also been harmed by indoor dining closures. Alcohol beverages often account for more than 25 percent of total restaurant sales, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

“With capacity restrictions and indoor dining bans still in place, restaurants are going to need a little extra love this Valentine’s Day. For consumers who are planning to celebrate the holiday at home, purchasing ‘cocktails to-go’ will allow them to support their favorite restaurant, while enjoying a handcrafted cocktail with their special meal,” said Lisa Hawkins, the council’s senior vice president of public affairs. 

A critical component in the debate over whether to open indoor dining is the health of restaurant workers.

“When they allow us to open up for indoor dining, we will absolutely do it no question but it’s going to be hard to staff. Until we all get vaccinated, then I think we will be back to normal,” Styne said.

In the last three months, nearly 450,000 restaurant jobs were lost, according to the National Restaurant Association. January marked the third consecutive monthly decline in restaurant employment, the association noted.

Styne added that it’s hard getting employees back to work even for outdoor dining because of health concerns.

“We’re trying to find more people and it’s going to employees and they’re not ready to come back yet. Everyone’s very fearful,” she said.

Public health experts have the same concerns, noting that indoor dining puts restaurant workers in a high-risk situation.

“Undeniably they are at greatest risk. Even if I have a shorter dinner than I might and I cycle out, and its 25 percent capacity and they space out the tables, I’m still maskless around restaurant workers,” Sehgal said. “It seems sort of selfish to me that someone would want to. We all want things to feel normal again, but it seems sort of selfish to put restaurant workers at risk.”

A recent CDC study found that double masking works to protect against the variants. The CDC recommended people wear a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask or people knot the loops around the ears and form a tighter fit for the mask.

“I think the same messages very much apply. Even though most of us are experiencing the fatigue of not being able to gather and socialize in restaurants, the same concerns with preventing the spread of coronavirus still holds true,” Perry said. “It’s not as though we’ve reached a point where the virus is decreased to a level where that’s no longer a risk, so the same cautions and protections apply.

She noted that public health is making progress and Americans need to be patient until life can get back to normal. 

“We are making inroads; the signs are very positive. Keep up the great work,” she said.



Tags Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus COVID-19 lockdowns Restaurants

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