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Study Links Some COVID-19 Outbreaks to Restaurants, Bars in Washington, D.C.

The city's Department of Health reports that dining and drinking establishments accounted for 13.8 percent of outbreaks between August 1 and Nov. 26.

Restaurants and bars have been linked to 15 outbreaks of COVID-19 over a nearly four-month period in Washington, D.C., according to contact-tracing data released by the city’s Department of Health (DC DOH) this week.

Restaurants and bars were tied with childcare and daycare facilities as one of the city’s main settings for coronavirus outbreaks, each accounting for 13.8 percent of the total 109 outbreaks between August 1 and November 26. The majority of outbreaks were linked to colleges and universities (30 outbreaks or 27.5 percent) and K-12 schools (19 outbreaks or 17.4 percent of the total).

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According to the DC DOH, the contact tracing data was collected “through case investigations initiated by reporting from community settings, including interviews with the business” as well as “interviews with individual COVID-19 cases where information on the location by address and time of visit is collected.”

Linking restaurants to coronavirus outbreaks has sparked controversy, with states and cities around the country banning dine-in service or imposing restrictions on dine-in capacity. The restrictions have led to loss of revenue for restaurant owners and a dramatic decline in employment for restaurant industry employees.

The National Restaurant Association last week sent a letter to the National Governors Association arguing that restaurants are being wrongly scapegoated as COVID-19 “super-spreaders.” That letter came after a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as a joint study by Stanford University, Northwestern University, Microsoft Research and Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, linked restaurants to coronavirus surges.

“There is an unfounded impression that restaurants are part of the problem, and we are suffering as a result of inconsistent, restrictive mandates,” Tom Bené, president and CEO of the Association, said in the letter. “Data tying systematic community outbreaks of COVID-19 to restaurants has yet to emerge, but we are too commonly labeled as ‘super-spreaders’ and have become a convenient scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns.”

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According to Nation’s Restaurant News, Washington, D.C.’s Office of the District of Columbia Auditor assessed the DC DOH contract tracing data and found it to be “strong” and “helpful.”

The DC DOH study also found that “food retail buildings,” such as grocery stores and supermarkets, accounted for nine outbreaks or 8.3 percent of the total number of outbreaks, while office buildings were linked to eight outbreaks or 7.3 percent of the total.

Other settings linked to outbreaks include congregate residential buildings (such as group homes and substance abuse homes) at 4.6 percent; construction sites at 2.8 percent; places of worship at 1.8 percent; community-based or social services program buildings at 0.9 percent; personal care services buildings (hair salons, nail salons, spas and barber shops) at 0.9 percent; and retail settings at 0.9 percent.