The scientific community sounded the alarm on the airborne quality of coronavirus as early as July, but the nation's leading public health agency has just recently caught up to that fact in their official guidelines.
Last week, after some initial confusion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged that coronavirus can be spread through air, which means that people can get infected by the virus even when standing six feet away from an infected person. Because the virus remains viable in tiny aerosols dispersed though the air for hours, it can travel longer distances, particularly indoors. (Related: 9 Restaurant Chains That Closed Hundreds of Locations This Summer.)
This new knowledge may end up impacting social distancing guidelines which could in turn have major repercussions on what kind of indoor gatherings are deemed safe. Just as restaurants and other businesses that operate in enclosed spaces have started to regain footing with cautious re-openings, the new guideline could throw a wrench in their efforts.
While a close person-to-person contact still remains the primary way people contract the virus, the fact that there's a chance, however low, of a patron contracting the virus though an undetectable mist of small droplets, may prompt the National Restaurant Association (NRN) to revise their reopening guidelines for American restaurants. In fact, revisions on restaurants' air circulation and ventilation guidelines have been on stand-by since September, while the association waited for more clarity on the issue from the CDC.
Some local jurisdictions have already tackled the potential airborne transmission in restaurants with their mandates. For example, reopening restaurants in New York City were required to have their HVAC systems tested and certified by licensed professionals. Restaurants in San Francisco were advised to have their air conditioning running even when they were closed, and preferably 24/7.
Besides keeping their interiors well-ventilated, restaurants may have to keep their occupancy as low as possible this winter. In the aforementioned cities, that allowance is currently at 25% of the restaurant's total capacity.
Larry Lynch, NRN's senior vice president of certification and operations, remains optimistic about the relatively low risk to diners, even in the face of this new information. "We know that when abiding by the rules—wearing masks when not eating or drinking, keeping social distances, and staying home when sick—the risk at restaurants remains low for diners and employees," he said in a statement to Restaurant Business on Tuesday.
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