With small business owners struggling under the weight of lockdown orders, Los Angeles and New York City drew intense criticism recently for closing restaurants again. Los Angeles issued an outdoor dining ban on top of its existing indoor dining ban and New York an indoor dining ban which, with the coming winter cold, by default ends outdoor dining as well. Both these cities have been especially heavy-handed with their application of public health interventions, issuing different policies with alarming frequency. Such behavior in itself leads to confusion and turmoil as communities are forced into situations to which they can never adapt financially or socially.
In light of growing knowledge about Covid-19 as well as our experience with the outcomes of public health interventions, restaurant closures should not be seen as a sensible policy. Not only do they cause tremendous economic and social trauma, but they also lack strong scientific backing and legal consistency. Closing restaurants, especially at this stage in the pandemic, will not only lead to adverse public health consequences, but will also undermine the rule of law.
The Faulty Science Behind Restaurant Closures
The main rationale behind closing restaurants pertains to stemming the recent upticks in Covid-19 cases and deaths. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that this time of the year is flu season, and it was correctly predicted earlier in the year that winter would bring a resurgence of the virus. Another explanation cites Thanksgiving family gatherings as another large contributor, as individuals gathered in spaces where guidelines were unlikely practiced. These are all reasonable explanations and one can go in many directions with this information, but closing restaurants is not one of them.
Although restaurants are sometimes labeled “superspreaders” according to contact tracing published by the state of New York, restaurants and bars only account for 1.43% of transmissions. Such data does not seem to be an anomaly as another report from Marion County, Oregon suggests that only 1% of transmissions could be traced to restaurants and bars.
The Salem Reporter writes,
“Craig Pope, Polk County commissioner, said he wants to help Oregon get the virus’ spread under control, but it’s hard for him to see state restrictions as science-based when the county’s health department hasn’t tied Covid spread back to restaurants.”
According to contact tracing, 74% of new cases are attributed to household gatherings where individuals are less cautious and health precautions are less prevalent. This would explain the uptick in cases post-Thanksgiving, but closing restaurants would essentially make such gatherings more prevalent. Eater writes,
“By comparison, private and social gatherings accounted for nearly 74 percent of COVID-19 cases tracked by the state between September and the end of November, and the restaurant industry placed fifth overall among the various industries and activities contributing to the spread of the virus.”
Closing restaurants will likely shift the density of infections towards other venues such as home gatherings and grocery stores. The late Dr. Donald Henderson wrote the following about limiting large public events in response to influenza, another highly infectious respiratory disease:
“Intuitively, this would appear to be a helpful adjunct to reduce contacts among people and so mitigate the effects of the epidemic. However, individuals normally have a great many contacts throughout the community on a daily basis: shopping in stores, attending church, traveling on public transport, and so on. Recognizing that the spread of influenza is primarily by person-to-person contact, any one individual, even in a large gathering, would have only a limited number of such close encounters with infected people.”
According to a recent study published by researchers at Stanford University, highly broad and disruptive policies such as restaurant closures are inferior to more precise policies such as occupancy limits. It also found that restrictive policies such as stay at home orders lead to increased transmission rates upon reopening, likley due to a backload of pent up demand
Tulsa World describes the findings of the research when it writes,
“The Stanford study analyzed the cellphone mobility data of 98 million people in 10 of the nation’s largest metros from this past spring. Full-service restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes, religious organizations and limited-service restaurants on average were settings where the largest predicted increase of infections happened after they reopened from stay-at-home orders, according to the researchers.
“These results support earlier findings that precise interventions, like reducing maximum occupancy, may be more effective than less targeted measures, while incurring substantially lower economic costs.”
This information supports the idea that restaurants should not only remain open but a blanket closure policy would produce even worse results. Not only will closing restaurants result in irreparable economic and social damage, but pent-up frustration from such a policy has historically led to more infections upon reopening. This is of course discounting the possibility that restaurants and local authorities will simply refuse to comply, which is not something a sterile scientific study can account for.
Eater writes the following
“Some in the industry say that restaurants have undertaken tremendous expense —while facing a revenue downturn due to the pandemic — to fit their indoor spaces with new air filters and other safety equipment, and that an indoor dining ban could encourage people to congregate in other areas including the several illicit, underground parties that have been busted in the last few months.”
Furthermore, there is a growing number of individuals in the medical profession who support the idea of the responsible development of herd immunity through natural infection in the absence of a widely available vaccine. This idea is the basis of the Great Barrington Declaration, a document cosigned and written by three of the world’s leading medical experts. While taking steps to protect the vulnerable, healthy individuals should be able to return to life as usual and exercise common sense. Such an approach is not only similar to how pandemics have been dealt with in the past, it also minimizes widespread societal turmoil.
Whether one subscribes to the ideas in the Great Barrington Declaration or wishes to continue with the current strategy of holding out until a vaccine is widely available, restaurant closures, much like school closures, should be the policy of last resort, if a policy at all.
The Broad Consequences of Restaurant Closures
Although the science behind keeping restaurants open is a worthy debate, it is important to remember that society is not a science experiment. There are tremendous social, economic, and legal consequences that come with such policies that we have seen play out throughout the pandemic.
One of the most serious consequences is an increase in suicides. In September it was reported that 60 percent of businesses will never reopen again, according to data provided by Yelp. With the new wave of restaurant closures in New York City and across the country, Eater writes,
“According to the survey — which polled 6,000 restaurant operators, including 238 in New York, over the last two weeks of November — 54 percent of NY restaurateurs say it is likely that they will close in the next six months if another federal relief package does not come through, compared to 37 percent nationwide.”
This will not only have permanent economic and cultural consequences, but there is also a documented relationship between unemployment and suicides. A study conducted in 1991 of over 2 million respondents in New Zealand found that
“Being unemployed was associated with a twofold to threefold increased relative risk of death by suicide, compared with being employed. About half of this association might be attributable to confounding by mental illness.”
The US Department of Veteran Affairs also states that
“The age-adjusted suicide rate increases when the economy is in recession and more people are unemployed.”
The unemployment rate in New York is at a dismal 9.7%, although the real number of affected individuals is likely much higher as workers give up hope on finding a job. Another round of abrupt business closures will drive this number higher and likely lead to a number of unintended health consequences rather than minimizing them.
Another important and concerning development that could result from restaurant closures is the general unraveling of the rule of law. In the eyes of many, restaurant closures are unscientific, arbitrary, economically devastating, and culturally demoralizing. On their face, restaurant closures represent a legally undisciplined policy that exhibits arbitrary and reckless rulemaking. This is why a LA County judge struck down a recently enacted outdoor dining ban, which if left to stand would be an example of the unjustified curtailing of liberty that our laws are meant to prevent. The reason being that LA County did not provide sufficient evidence to justify the closures.
An even more extreme and concerning development is the outright delegitimization of the law. In California, ABC News reports that the Orange County Sheriff’s department has refused to enforce the new stay at home order issued by the governor of California when it writes
“Compliance with health orders is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement,” (Don) Barnes said in a statement. “The Orange County Sheriff’s Department will remain consistent in our approach.
“Orange County Sheriff’s deputies will not be dispatched to, or respond to, calls for service to enforce compliance with face coverings, social gatherings, or stay-at-home orders only.”
Although it is certainly good to see local communities acting to protect their freedoms, it also shows the diminishing political capital governors have over their own states due to reckless policymaking. It would be in the best interest of political stability to avoid such confrontations.
The recent wave of restaurant closures, most notably in New York City and Los Angeles, threatens to continue the disastrous policies that have characterized the pandemic. They not only go against mounting scientific evidence, but seem to conform to a style of decision-making based on narratives and not reality. It relies on theoretical science that may make sense in a sterile lab setting, but fails to perform in reality. That is because society is far too complex and the consequences far too broad for such simplistic solutions to work. The most optimal solution would be one that allows individuals to weigh the risks of their own actions and make voluntary decisions based on their own unique circumstances. One-size-fits-all is a recipe of failure.
Restaurant closures represent an attack on some of the most sacred cultural institutions in society that will not only further degrade our social fabric, but also generate tremendous economic damage to already devastated communities. In light of the mounting evidence (scientific, economic, and social), restaurant closures will only guarantee to further exacerbate existing calamity while providing little in return.