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Are You More Likely To Get COVID-19 In A Plane Or A Restaurant?

February 9, 2021

An epidemiologist and 15-year Harvard School of Public Health faculty member questioned the wisdom of shutting down in-person dining as a way to control COVID-19 spread if the main reason is customers can’t wear masks while eating. 

Dr. Daniel Halperin told the House Agriculture Committee Wednesday “the evidence on masks is really cloudy.” What seems to count more in reducing COVID-19 spread is ventilation and filtration system improvements as well as social distancing. 
 
Halperin said if in-person dining were a dangerous situation, he would expect airline passengers, who spend several hours packed into planes virtually shoulder to shoulder, to show a higher rate of transmission. 
 
In Michigan, airplane travel was not banned while in person dining was paused for nearly three months from November to Feb. 2 when the state saw its highest-ever COVID-19 case numbers. 
 
Halperin, who has had more than 60 articles published in peer reviewed journals including Science and The Lancet, was testifying during a hearing in which Republican committee members in particular vented to state agriculture officials about restaurants closing for what initially seemed to be a three-week pause. 
 
The governor’s pause “obviously worked” because cases of COVID-19 have come down, said Gary McDowell, director of the Agriculture and Rural Development Department. 
 
“At that time, that was when the rates were skyrocketing. There was an increase in the number of cases and deaths in this state and we were looking at possibly not having hospital beds open, so the governor took actions to stop that increase.” 
 
Committee Chair Julie Alexander (R-Hanover) wasn’t convinced. 
 
Asked whether improvements at a restaurant were taken into consideration, McDowell noted that under the DHHS order allowing restaurants to open to 25% capacity, an increase in capacity is allowed for if a restaurant has improved its ventilation system. 
 
The same type of data used to make that exception should have been allowed to extend across the board, she said. 
 
“I think Rep. (Daire) Rendon (R-Lake City) made a very valid point, that if we are going to look at the data and make that leap in connection, we also need to be looking at, did those numbers go down, did those numbers go up in other states that were allowing restaurants to be open. I want to make sure that the data we are comparing is comparable data,” Alexander told MIRS following the hearing. 
 
She explained the point of the hearing Wednesday was to educate members about MDARD’s role in shutting those restaurants down and hold MDARD accountable for enforcing a standard set by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Alexander said she felt those goals were achieved. 
 
Rep. Bryan Posthumus (R-Greenville) asked what authority MDARD has to enforce rules set by DHHS. 
 
Tim Slawinski, head of MDARD’s Food and Dairy Division, said MDARD was acting under its own authority. It has the power to suspend licenses for food service industry providers when there is an “imminent danger,” such as a result of food spoilage. 
 
McDowell contended that of the 45,000 licenses overseen by MDARD — which includes processors, hospitals and gas stations, but not restaurants — only 22 cease and desist orders have been issued. 
 
Restaurants are overseen by local health departments. According to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, there are 16,500 establishments in Michigan and 23%, approximately 4,000 locations, say they are unlikely to still be in business in six months. 
 
Ten percent of Michigan’s workforce, she said, is employed in the food service industry. Alexander said she’s concerned about the number of workers put out of a job when restaurants are shutdown. 
 
“Those are the people that are hiring those single moms with kids. Forget about Christmas and Christmas gifts, they’re not able to pay their bills. I would also question, are those waitresses going to be able to get unemployment claims? The questions go on and on,” Alexander said. 

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