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In-Person Dining Is Linked to Increased Covid-19 Infections, a New CDC Report Finds

The report also supports the continuation of mask mandates.

bar worker measuring table distance Photo: courtesy Danielle Rice/Unsplash

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control appears to link rising rates of Covid-19 infection and deaths with the absence of mask mandates and in-person dining during the Covid-19 pandemic. The CDC’s findings were published as many state and local governments have begun to ease restrictions on dining, despite warnings from the public health organization and the federal government that doing so could lead to greater risk of infection.

“You have decreases in cases and deaths when you wear masks, and you have increases in cases and deaths when you have in-person restaurant dining,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing upon the release of the report. “And so we would advocate for policies, certainly while we’re at this plateau of a high number of cases, that would listen to that public health science.”

The data isn’t changing behavior on the ground though. In Texas and Mississippi, all Covid-19 mask mandates and dining restrictions have been lifted. Meanwhile, indoor dining capacity will increase further in New York, and Los Angeles may soon allow indoor dining for the first time since last summer. While the wave of cases through the fall and winter has crested and infections have come down, that progress has begun to plateau. More than 1,500 people are dying each day from the virus, a number higher than the peak last summer that made Texas, Florida and California put new restrictions in place to fight the pandemic.

The study wasn’t conclusive enough to draw a causal relationship between in-person dining and Covid-19 infections, but the correlation between the two was still deemed statistically significant.

“It’s a solid piece of work that makes the case quite strongly that in-person dining is one of the more important things that needs to be handled if you’re going to control the pandemic,” William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, told NBC News.

The National Restaurant Association responded by calling the report “an ill-informed attack on the industry hardest hit by the pandemic,” in a statement. The organization points out that there are many variables at play that could account for increased cases, like the opening of other businesses in a state or county. And the report didn’t differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining.

Pulling data from March through the end of December, the CDC looked at rates of infection and death changed in set time intervals after masks were mandated or dining restrictions put in place. Researchers found that in the first 40 days after restaurants could serve diners in person, there wasn’t a statistically significant rise in infections in the area. But in areas that did open for in-person dining, infection rates rose .9 percentage points after 60 days, 1.2 points after 80 and 1.1 points after 100. And in those places with in-person dining, Covid-19 deaths were 2.2 percentage points higher in the 61 to 80 days after it resumed and 3 points higher in the 81 to 100 days after.

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