This Is How Quickly Covid-19 Can Spread In A Restaurant, Per New Study

New research is highlighting just how risky indoor dining can be during the Covid-19 pandemic — especially if you’re seated at the wrong table.

A study from South Korea published last month in the Journal of Korean Medical Science suggests that the coronavirus can travel farther than the typical six-foot social distancing radius in a very short time if there is direct air flow.

The researchers determined that the virus can spread more than three times the six-foot range in just five minutes — a much faster window than most diners spend maskless at a restaurant table while they are eating their food. The Korean scientists concluded that six feet of space between tables is not enough to protect diners from being infected.

The study looked at a small outbreak earlier this year in a South Korean restaurant. Two diners were infected with Covid-19 from a third, asymptomatic diner who sat 21 feet away. The culprit, say the researchers, was the restaurant’s ceiling air conditioner, which provided direct air flow from the infected diner to the other two diners.

Based on interviews and data collection on closed-circuit security TV and cell phone location data, the researchers determined that the three diners were together in the restaurant for only five minutes. They had no direct or indirect contact otherwise.

Since the pandemic began, evidence has mounted suggesting that dining out in restaurants — especially indoors — is among the riskiest activities. In September, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that adults with Covid-19 were twice as likely to have dined out in a restaurant in the two weeks prior to their infection.

Other studies have suggested ways to keep diners safer without closing down restaurants. For example, last month, researchers at Stanford and Northwestern universities argued it was possible to allow indoor restaurant dining without fearing a Covid-19 spike. The solution, they said, is to lower the maximum occupancy on each indoor establishment based on factors such as the square footage of the establishment.

Less than two weeks after Thanksgiving, virtually every state in the continental U.S. is in the “high risk” category for Covid-19 community spread, according to the risk-assessment map from the Harvard Global Health Institute and Brown School of Public Health. That makes it harder to eat out in a restaurant safely, according to public health experts.

The CDC recently ratcheted up its guidance on mask wearing, now recommending that “everyone 2 years of age and older should wear a mask in public settings and when they are around people who do not live in their household.” But the agency does not come down firmly against dining out, instead recommending that diners “take precautions – like wearing a mask as much as possible when not eating and maintaining a proper social distance if you are dining with others who don’t live with you.”

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