Outdoor dining ban may be driving increase in COVID cases, some scientists say

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Monday, January 25, 2021
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California's ban on outdoor dining to cut down on COVID may be having the opposite of its intended effect.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- California's ban on outdoor dining to cut down on COVID may be having the opposite of its intended effect. Some scientists believe it's driving an increase of new cases.

Restaurant owners like Chuck Van Fleet swear by the cleanliness and relative safety of their businesses.

"You can't be anywhere that's as clean as this," said the owner of Vino Grille & Spirits in northeast Fresno.

Some studies, including one from Stanford University published in November, have shown the coronavirus will spread when restaurants open for indoor dining.

But two days after California instituted a ban on outdoor dining, the state's health secretary admitted the decision was not based on data. Dr. Mark Ghaly said it was designed to discourage gathering.

Infectious disease specialist Monica Gandhi, M.D., compares the ban to abstinence-only campaigns.

She says human nature takes over and instead of directing people towards safer behavior and harm reduction, the ban will push them towards riskier activity.

"The concern about not doing harm reduction is that it can drive people inside," Dr. Gandhi said. "Maybe especially over the holidays, the people desperately wanted to be together - not because they don't believe in COVID, but because that's a natural human emotion."

There's no way to measure the exact effect of the ban on new cases, but Dr. Gandhi says there is data showing the ban isn't working.

"We can tell from things like mobility data or things like travel data that messaging 'Don't travel' or 'Don't be around loved ones' was not effective," Dr. Gandhi said.

The outdoor dining ban carries a measurable cost for restaurant owners and the people who work for them.

"If you can do an outdoor dining, you can keep your people working," Van Fleet said. "The big thing is we need to keep our people working. We don't need to add to unemployment."

He says outdoor dining alone would help him employ five extra people every night.

The state has given no indication of when it might again allow outdoor dining, but it's getting costly.

Van Fleet's restaurant alone paid $100,000 less in sales taxes in 2020 than in 2019.