New Jersey’s indoor dining plan lasted barely two months before troubling COVID-19 trends spurred new restrictions this week.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday a new set of dining regulations set to combat the pandemic’s surging second wave — the most impactful being no indoor dining allowed after 10 p.m. Outdoor dining — be it on patios, in tents or “bubbles” — may still continue until 2 a.m.
Murphy added Thursday that individual towns or counties could reduce the curfew further, to 8 p.m. for all non-essential businesses, if they so decide. Newark officials already made this decision for New Jersey’s largest city last month as positivity rates spiked.
There’s a lot riding on these latest executive orders. Dozens of restaurants have already shuttered for good due to previous shutdowns. Bar and restaurant owners said they expect to take yet another major financial hit due to the decrease in business.
On Tuesday, a new study from Stanford University found that eating at a restaurant was by far the riskiest activity leading to new infections during the virus’s rampant first wave.
With that, does tightening the state’s bar and restaurant services by only a few hours actually make sense? Do the public health benefits balance against further economic downturn?
NJ Advance Media talked to three medical experts about the new rules and their potential effectiveness. Here’s what they said.
Some experts believe the 10 p.m. ban is arbitrary and will not be effective.
A common refrain on social media after Murphy announced the 10 p.m. curfew was “does COVID not reveal itself until 10 p.m.?” Experts tended to agree, suggesting indoor dining before 10 p.m. is just as dangerous for the spread of coronavirus as it is after.
“I think it’s just kind of arbitrary,” Aline M. Holmes, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Nursing, said. “I think they just want to clear everybody, make them all go home at 10 o’ clock and keep everyone from drinking until 2 in the morning and becoming boisterous.”
It stands to reason that as patrons become more inebriated, their social distancing measures could suffer, which would lend some credence to the 10 p.m. curfew’s effectiveness.
“Your ability to think rationally, the more you drink, it goes down — your ability to make good decisions becomes hindered. We know that’s true about drinking,” said Dr. Stephanie Silvera, a public health professor at Montclair State University and an expert in epidemiology.
But experts still don’t expect these new rules to move the needle much in either direction in regard to virus spread.
“The reality is, there’s no daytime variation in COVID,” Silvera said. “So if you’re indoors at a bar or dining indoors before 10 p.m., that risk is not necessarily that much less. Maybe there’s going to be fewer people. I can’t quite put my finger on the rationale for that particular curfew.”
If outdoor dining isn’t ventilated, it’s essentially as dangerous as indoor dining.
Dining outdoors in tents and other covered structures has become a lifeline for restaurants as they fight to remain profitable as temperatures plunge. Tents and kitschy bubbles or igloos are not considered indoor dining in the new regulations, but from a health standpoint they might not be much safer.
Experts agreed that ventilation is the key to safe dining, which is why outdoor dining typically is safer than indoors. But if restaurants are setting up enclosed tents or bubbles to stave off the cold, the benefits of being outside are moot.
Silvera said one of her former students posted on Instagram “So indoor dining is okay, if the indoors is outdoors?” and she agrees with the sentiment.
“From a health perspective, I don’t see how the risk is that is that different,” Silvera said of enclosed outdoor dining. “I do think it ends up defeating the purpose.
“I applaud the creativity that the restaurants are using to try to stay open, because we do need them economically to stay open,” Silvera added. “But the best option, really, is to try to stay as well-ventilated as possible. So you should have at least two sides open any of these tents.”
Mostly or fully enclosed tents, which have popped up all over New Jersey, may be better for comfort but they’re much less safe.
“If the outdoor structure is fully enclosed and allows multiple parties to dine simultaneously, it is essentially an extension of indoor dining,” said Dr. Corey Basch, a professor of public health and the department chair at William Paterson University.
Bubble dining isn’t as safe as it sounds
Individual igloos or bubbles may seem safer because you aren’t sat near other diners, but the enclosed nature of the structures creates a whole other set of issues.
“You don’t really know who’s been in there before,” Holmes said. “They may clean the table and chairs and stuff, but there’s no way to clean the air. It is an airborne disease. So the virus can be floating around in the air unless some big wind comes through and open up windows, I don’t see how that goes anywhere.”
Indoor dining remains risky. Restrictions must continue.
While the safety of enclosed outdoor dining is questionable, some experts think any limits on indoor dining — while painful for restaurants financially — will help quell the spread of COVID-19 at least somewhat.
For now, the 25% capacity rule from Sept. 4′s initial reopening remains. Tables may now be placed closer than six feet apart as long as a plexiglass barrier exists between them.
“Limiting the capacity of indoor dining makes a great deal of sense from a public health standpoint,” Basch said.
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