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SC restaurant group tries to refute links between in-person dining, COVID-19 transmission

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Lula Drake Wine Parlour in Columbia. South Carolina’s main restaurant association is participating in a national push to loosen state restaurant restrictions as new COVID-19 cases reach record numbers. John Carlos/Special to the Post and Courier

South Carolina’s main restaurant association is participating in a national push to loosen state restaurant restrictions as new COVID-19 cases in the state and across the country reach record numbers.

The aim, in part, is to “refute claims that dining in restaurants and COVID transmissions are linked,” as the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association posted on its social media pages on Dec. 15. The blitz linked to a survey asking restaurant owners to detail the extent to which the pandemic has affected their business and whether or not the businesses have been a “source cluster of COVID-19 illnesses.”

The survey comes as states like New York and California have again restricted dining, and a prominent study added further evidence of the link between restaurants and COVID-19.

“The data gained ... will be used to make scientific-based decisions on restrictions instead of reflexive actions that punish restaurants without evidence,” the association's posts read. “Help us keep restaurants open!”

The survey is part of an effort to provide the National Restaurant Association with data to push back against dining restrictions that have been reenacted in some states, said Bobby Williams, owner of Lizard’s Thicket restaurants in the Columbia region and chairman of the state restaurant association.

Williams noted that South Carolina stands out because it has benefitted from a governor that has removed most restrictions on dining, outside of an 11 p.m. alcohol sales curfew. 

“Around the country they’re closing restaurants, closing outdoor dining. I’m not a doctor, but the professionals say there’s been no link with COVID transmissions and restaurants,” he said. “The restaurants around the country have just taken a horrendous beating from these government mandates and it's an easy thing to do, but it's putting everyone out of business.”

A handful of studies have shown links between restaurants and COVID-19, including one in November from Stanford University. That study used computer modeling and cellphone data to show restaurants were riskier than other businesses, including gyms and other indoor spaces.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also published a study in September underscoring the link. 

Restaurants are considered higher risk because of the need to take off a mask to eat and drink, said Anthony Alberg, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health.

The National Restaurant Association has pushed back strongly on both the Stanford and CDC studies and critiqued predictive modeling as a reliable tool.

Asked about the studies linking COVID-19 and restaurants, Williams asserted that anyone can find a report to support any argument on the internet.

Frustrated restaurant owners questioning the link between COVID-19 and restaurants, or feeling like they’ve been made easy targets, is becoming an increasingly common refrain. Williams, for one, wondered why grocery stores and other types of retail weren’t facing the same kinds of restrictions.

The state restaurant association chairman said he understands that a crowded restaurant is unsafe for COVID-19 transmission, but said he believes that a socially distanced restaurant with proper safety precautions is a safe place to dine.

He cited the various health practices restaurants are now undertaking, from sanitizing door knobs to taking employee temperatures.

In a November letter to the National Governors Association, the National Restaurant Association claimed that “data tying systemic community outbreaks of COVID-19 to restaurants has yet to emerge." Further, it asked for governors to aid restaurants by giving them advance notice of forthcoming restrictions, and to consider shutting down in-person dining as a last resort, among other points of emphasis.

“We’re trying to get these governors of these states to reduce these restrictions,” Williams said. “The restaurants are just low-hanging fruits, it makes the governors look like they’re really doing something. It's an easy industry to pick on.”

Restaurants’ efforts to distance and sanitize are all helpful, as are other measures, Alberg said. However, he added that there’s another layer to consider that is outside the restaurant’s control — the state of viral transmission in the community.

The number of cases and the positivity rate dictates some of the danger levels, no matter how safe the restaurants are trying to be, he explained.

Cases in South Carolina have skyrocketed in recent weeks, with positivity rates consistently landing above 20 percent. On Dec. 11 and 12, daily reported cases topped 3,000 for the first time in the state, and only one day since Dec. 4 has that number dip below 2,000.

Alberg is worried these numbers could continue to worsen.

“We’re amidst the holiday season, the likelihood of people being in congregate settings increases,” he said, while acknowledging that outdoor dining removes some of the risk involved with indoor dining.

Alberg said he was not familiar with any direct examples of restaurants being notable spreaders, but would be “surprised if there hadn’t been,” explaining that he doesn’t follow the restaurant industry closely.

Further, he said he is unaware there was scientific evidence refuting the link between restaurants and COVID-19, but cautioned against reading too much into that, as well.

While industry leaders continue to walk the tightrope of advocating for their business and keeping customers and staff safe, there remains ample evidence that the industry needs more help to survive. Surveys done by the National Restaurant Association and others have shown a dire landscape.

The National Restaurant Association released a survey earlier this month that showed 87 percent of open full-service restaurants are dealing with an average revenue decline of 36 percent. Other organizations, like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, have conducted surveys with equally bleak findings.

Williams asserted that his organization is staying busy on multiple fronts, including the survey push, lobbying for further aid for restaurants in any COVID-19 relief deal at the federal or state level, and pushing for the removal of South Carolina's alcohol sales curfew.

"We are in contact with the Governor’s Office every week," he said.

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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