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A large number of D.C. residents who got COVID-19 in early October went to a restaurant or bar just before experiencing symptoms and testing positive. But it’s unclear whether they ate indoors or outdoors, because DC Health does not ask when they are investigating cases.  

Of the 374 people who got sick and tested positive between Oct. 2 and 8, nearly 21 percent told contact tracers they went to a restaurant or bar in the two weeks prior. Others also reported socializing in groups of five or more, working, and traveling. The data shows correlation but not causation because it’s possible for transmission to have occurred elsewhere.

“Clusters [of cases] provide a better idea that transmission occurred in that environment,” said Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt on a call with councilmembers.       

On the call, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman pressed Nesbitt from the D.C. Department of Health on why contract-tracing interviewers don’t ask people who have tested positive for COVID-19 whether they dined inside or outside at a restaurant. They only query whether someone has had a meal on-premises at an establishment.

“Why wouldn’t we want to know whether the person dined indoors or outdoors?” Silverman says. “Restaurants could say, ‘Why are people concerned about dining indoors when there’s no difference in what we’re seeing in what interviewees report.’ If there’s a big difference, we would want to discourage indoor dining.” 

Even a restaurateur sees the potential benefit of differentiating between the two. “It would be helpful to have that extra bit of information from the authorities, because we are all actively learning about best practices together,” says Daniel Kramer, managing partner at Duke’s Grocery, Duke’s Counter, and Gogi Yogi. “The main thing is for everyone involved, from guests to staff to government agencies, to be safe, smart, and transparent because the only way we get through this thing is together.” 

Kramer says he’s doing his part by collecting contract tracing information from all diners. For those seated indoors, he takes it one step further by taking temperatures. 

In response to Silverman’s questioning, Nesbitt offers: “Fair question, but we in public health do our work through case studies. We have clear case study information that makes public health science very clear about indoor versus outdoor. I don’t need to collect at a granular level whether or not someone went to a restaurant and dined indoors or outdoors.”

Contact tracers do ask people who attended social gatherings just before getting sick whether they were indoors and outdoors. There is more ambiguity with these types of gatherings within the science community, says Nesbitt. She adds that contact tracers are also looking for information that might help officials with public health management. 

George Washington University epidemiologist Dr. Amanda Castel says having contact tracers ask someone whether they ate indoors or outdoors could provide potentially useful information for officials. What the contact tracing data does tell us so far is that dining—be it indoors or outdoors—is risky. “Your mask is down. You are eating and talking,” she says. 

The October data also suggests that the virus is still circulating around D.C. While a large percentage of people who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month reported dining, socializing, traveling, or working before getting sick, nearly 50 percent of people reported other activities like going to church or the gym.

“The take home message is we still have community spread and still need to remain vigilant,” says Castel. “All our behavior is really critical now because we have to minimize transmission.” 

Castel says D.C. is not where we should be as we enter the winter months, when cases are expected to rise even further. The daily case rate has been hovering around eight cases per 100,000 people for over a week, which suggests moderate community spread, according to the city’s dashboard. Everyone should be wary of this as they weigh whether to go out to eat, or engage in any risky activities, Castel says. “It’s difficult. We are all human … Whatever people decide to do, it is really important that they don’t let their guard down. We are not over this … Continue to wear your mask.”   

—Amanda Michelle Gomez and Laura Hayes (tips? tips@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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