upside down chairs
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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As the number of COVID-19 cases surpasses 11 million nationwide, District officials have countless consequential decisions to make that will impact local lives and livelihoods. One of them is determining whether community spread is extensive enough to reintroduce restrictions on on-premise consumption at restaurants.

The District’s daily case rate is above 15 cases per 100,000 people, which signals that there is “substantial community spread.” A seven-day case average over 15 suggests D.C. is back where it was in May, before the city lifted its stay-at-home order.

Any rollback, however, could significantly impact small, independently owned eateries that make up the majority of the local restaurant scene. The number of permanent closures is increasing eight months into the pandemic. There’s little promise of incoming aid on the local or federal level, landlords are getting restless, and temperatures are dropping.

When restaurants were limited to take-out and delivery only, most reported only pulling in about 20 percent of their typical sales. City Paper has regularly tracked their struggles.

Jobs disappear too. Should the District dial back on-premise consumption, some restaurant workers who recently returned to work would be back home navigating the city’s outdated, understaffed, and embattled unemployment system, which City Paper has chronicled. Some workers aren’t even eligible because of their immigration status.

Other jurisdictions revised restrictions in recent weeks after seeing severe spikes in cases and hospitalizations. Indoor and outdoor dining is currently off limits in Oregon. Starting Wednesday, Michigan will no longer allow indoor dining. Chicago and San Francisco already called indoor dining off until metrics improve. Philadelphia just moved to pause indoor dining through through the end of the year starting Friday.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said at her press conference today that she’s noticed the rollbacks in nearby jurisdictions. “They’re coming more in line with where we’ve been,” she said.

That’s not quite accurate. The District is currently in Phase 2 of reopening, which allows restaurants to seat their dining rooms at 50 percent capacity. Montgomery County and Prince George’s County both reduced their permitted indoor capacities to 25 percent in recent days. Virginia put a 10 p.m. curfew on the on-premise consumption of alcohol. In D.C., businesses with alcohol licenses can serve patrons until midnight.

D.C. officials also presented new data on “high-to-moderate exposure activities” today based on contract-tracing interviews with District residents who tested positive for COVID-19. The highest percentage of people (27.9 percent) reported going to a “social event” in the two weeks prior to testing positive. Nearly 26 percent of people said they dined in a restaurant, and 14.4 percent said they traveled.

These data points can only hint at correlation. Just because someone went to a restaurant within the two weeks before they tested positive doesn’t mean they contracted the virus at a restaurant. But considering the consequences of rolling back any dining activities, one would think the city would gather as much information as possible.

In October, City Paper reported that contract tracers don’t ask patients who reported dining in a restaurant whether they sat inside or outside. That hasn’t changed. City Paper pressed DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt for further explanation.

She describes the contract-tracing calls as “very anxiety-provoking moments” for patients. Nesbitt says District residents ask investigators on the other line whether “they’re going to survive this” or whether “they’re going to be hospitalized.”

“We have our calls audited … with all of our positive cases,” Nesbitt explains. “A couple weeks ago an auditor said, ‘It’s time to shorten the length of the interview.’ Often times in briefings or in the flood of emails I get, I’m asked if we’re considering adding additional questions. I have to balance that with the auditor asking me to shorten the call. People are getting fatigued. Engagement dwindles after 10 minutes.”

Nesbitt says she fields steady inquiries about adding a question that distinguishes between indoor and outdoor dining. But because “there’s already enough evidence out there that indoor activities are risker than outdoor activities,” she says tacking on further questions doesn’t “increase knowledge” or add value. “Us adding additional levels of questions in our algorithm that prolongs interviews, we don’t see additional value in that,” she says.

She also points to some grey areas that would make further questioning complex. There are outdoor tents with two sides, outdoor tents with three sides, and inflatable igloos that blur the line between indoor and outdoor dining settings based on air flow.

Other health departments see the value in separating outdoor and indoor dining when interviewing residents. Maryland posts its contract-tracing findings online. For the week of Nov. 1 through Nov. 7, 3,639 people who tested positive for COVID-19 reported going to a “high-risk location.” A graph shows 894 people dined inside and 421 reported dined outside. A representative from the Philadelphia Department of Health says contract tracers ask residents who have tested positive whether they dined inside or outside.

In Michigan, it’s more open-ended. A Department of Health and Human Services representative says, “It’s possible if [patients] mention eating out they could be asked if they sat inside or outside, but it’s not a standard question.”

For now, the District is staying the course. Restaurant operators shouldn’t expect any changes in the coming days. “We will continue monitoring metrics closely and if we determine something needs to change to impact our caseload, we will,” Bowser says.