As autumn winds blow cooler and snow is just months away in large parts of the U.S., the question for many Americans tired of staying at home during the pandemic will be this: To eat indoors at restaurants or not?
By now, most states are allowing some type of indoor dining following the lockdowns during spring. But at the same time, it's becoming increasingly clear that the novel coronavirus can hang out in the air for a while, making it easy to spread indoors.
And, the total known diagnoses of Covid-19 has continued to climb in the U.S., which as of Sunday was fast approaching 7.4 million cases with nearly 210,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins disease-tracking map. Even states that were for months handling the outbreak well, such as Massachusetts and New York, are now seeing worrying trends, while several Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and South Dakota are seeing infections skyrocket.
We asked Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, for his take on eating at restaurants, wearing masks, and the threat of Covid-19.
In addition to his emergency room and teaching duties, Faust is also the editor-in-chief of Brief19.com, which bills itself as a daily review of Covid-19 research and policy. We spoke to him by email over the weekend.
TheStreet: You recently posted on Twitter your concerns over indoor dining. Given the unknowns around the coronavirus and its ability to spread via aerosols, do you think there is any safe way to resume indoor dining at this point?
Faust: There is probably some low level of indoor restaurant dining that is safe, but from preliminary data I have seen, it is likely only safe at extremely low capacity. Even then, you need masked employees, excellent air circulation and filtration, and impeccable hygiene protocols.
TheStreet: Have you been out to eat since the pandemic began -- if so, what measures did you take to be reasonably safe while eating out?
Faust: I have eaten outdoors on a couple of occasions. We brought our own hand sanitizer -- though the establishments provided it. We also did not use the indoor restrooms, because there are legitimate concerns about small enclosed spaces with shared surfaces and with a high turnover of people coming and going.
TheStreet: Some people still view practices such as wearing masks indoors and avoiding crowds as a personal choice, but don't they really affect everyone, including people like you, at the frontlines in emergency rooms?
Faust: Wearing a mask indoors is not just about protecting yourself but others. Your own risk profile is different than your neighbors'. Many older patients catch the virus from younger people, who are not as worried about getting the virus. If it were me, I would feel terrible if I spread the virus to someone else who then became gravely ill.
TheStreet: Your hospital did have a recent outbreak; what was your reaction to that and how do you feel it responded?
Faust: The hospital did a great job. They were transparent, rolled out a very good containment plan, and offered testing to anyone who wanted it. We’ll see clusters like this from time-to-time in a few hospitals around the country, but with enough personal protective equipment, testing, and vigilance, these events should be rare. The best way to decrease the odds of this occurring is to contain the virus in the community. That’s where people are more likely to become infected.
TheStreet: Many colleges have let students return, some schools are reopening at least partially and we're heading into colder weather in much of the U.S. How concerned are you that the nation's Covid-19 infection rates will rise even further?
Faust: Any indoor congregating is a problem, and outdoor options become limited as the colder months approach. Colleges should be almost entirely remote, though if students need a place to live, campuses should accommodate that. Heat lamps should be much more common. If we could keep classes outdoors for a few more months with heat lamps, that would be great. The same is true for dining. Heat lamps mean that outdoor dining can continue for a long time. If you could bundle up and go to a New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers game in the past, you can enjoy a meal in a coat with a heat lamp. I’d like to see these businesses survive, but do so safely.
TheStreet: Finally, what would you say to anyone who either doesn't believe in the dangers of Covid-19 or thinks that the pandemic is being exaggerated?
Faust: The President of the United States is currently at Walter Reed Hospital fighting Covid-19. Also, 2020 will be the first year in American history that more than three million people have died in total. We were projecting around 2.9 million deaths this year when the year started -- before Covid-19 (was factored in). It now might be closer to 3.15-3.2 million people. We have not seen these kinds of per-capita death rates since the 1960s — before seat belts were common and before so many life-extending medical treatments became available. If we had not closed businesses temporarily and had stay-at-home orders and advisories, things would have been even worse. I wish we did not have to do it, but I am glad we did. I sincerely hope things do not become so bad that it has to happen again.