No Science Justifies Bans on Indoor or Outdoor Dining

In a video that is simultaneously gut-wrenching and infuriating, a Los Angeles restaurant owner exposed the hypocrisy of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s order to ban outdoor dining in his city.

Angela Mardsen, the owner of Pineapple Hill Grill and Saloon, showed a large outdoor dining area erected for a movie studio about 50 feet from the now-shuttered outdoor section of her restaurant. “I’m losing everything,” an emotional Marden said. “Everything I own is being taken away from me and they set up a movie company right next to my outdoor patio. We cannot survive, my staff cannot survive.”

Her video went viral with millions of views; it earned a retweet by the president’s son. “It’s like these politicians are trying to destroy all small businesses,” Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted Friday. “Ridiculous!!!”

But government decrees to close bars and restaurants—especially service outside—are more than ridiculous. They are cruel, unconstitutional, and devastating to the hospitality sector, the nation’s second-largest private employer. 

In a December 7 letter to congressional leaders, the National Restaurant Association detailed the “stark” condition of the industry. More than 110,000 restaurants have permanently closed their doors this year; 10,000 establishments have shut down in just the past three months, according to the trade group. November’s unemployment rate for the leisure and hospitality sector is 15 percent, more than double the national jobless rate. Restaurants and bars account for one-fifth of the total job losses in the United States since February 2020.

It’s a wretched situation on both an economic and personal level—particularly since not one executive order is backed by science. 

In fact, closing dining venues is a wholly unscientific mitigation strategy that has no proven impact on halting the spread of COVID-19. One would think that nearly a year into the pandemic, such a drastic measure would be backed by reams of data and real-life examples. Surely hundreds of case studies now are available to justify permanently destroying tens of thousands of small businesses and millions of jobs, right?


“Contact tracing in the United States and other countries does not support the focus on those [establishments] as the main problem,” Dr. Scott Atlas, a former member of the president’s coronavirus task force, told me by phone Monday. “The rules seem arbitrary and people should want to see the data to support those policies.” The problem, Atlas confirmed, is a lack of data. 

Only a handful of papers attempt to tie public dining to the spread of the novel coronavirus. A much-ballyhooed study posted in September by the Centers for Disease Control claimed people who dined out were twice as likely to become infected with COVID-19 than those who had not. Headlines blared the alleged statistic just as the industry slowly was getting back to normal after the initial shutdowns in March. “Adults with Covid-19 about ‘twice as likely’ to say they have dined at a restaurant, CDC study suggests,” CNN breathlessly reported on September 10.

But the study did not draw from hard data directly linked to confirmed outbreaks at dining or drinking venues. The finding instead relied on recall surveys completed by infected respondents two to three weeks after a positive test result, which required the respondent to remember activities in the 14 day-period before symptoms appeared. Personal behavioral questionnaires, especially during pandemic-fueled hysteria, are not reliable sources of scientific evidence.

Further, the sample size was small and measured a number of other factors including face mask use. (The majority of COVID-positive respondents, it’s worth noting, reported close contact with an infected family member. So let’s force everyone to remain inside their homes!)

Broad assumptions, however, did all the heavy lifting in the CDC paper. “The study tells us that people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 had also dined out,” the National Restaurant Association responded in a statement. “There is no clear evidence that the virus was actually contracted at a restaurant versus any other community locations.”

As the old scientific saying goes, correlation is not causation.

Another study published in November is even sketchier and relies on even broader assumptions. Researchers used cell phone data to track the hourly movements of 98 million Americans in the country’s 10 largest cities and compared infection rates in those areas; the team concluded that crowded indoor public spaces such as restaurants, bars, and health clubs accounted for 80 percent of new infections in the early weeks of the crisis. 

“Restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels,” Dr. Jure Leskovec, a Stanford University computer scientist and author of the so-called mobility network model, told reporters in November.

But the experiment has a huge flaw: The cell phone data tracked movement from March 1 to May 2, 2020. Nearly every restaurant, bar, gym, coffee shop, and public venue across the country was closed for business beginning the middle of March. Where, exactly, were these 98 million people eating and drinking? For months, the only mobility most Americans experienced was from bed to couch then back to bed. And even if a lucky few dined inside a restaurant, there’s no way to know whether any infection directly was by the verboten meal.

In fact, the current body of evidence indicates that bars and restaurants are among the least likely culprits in the spread of COVID-19. A study that used contact tracing in Switzerland after that country’s lockdown was lifted found less than two percent of infections could be attributed to bars and restaurants. (Again, households were found to be the top vector for spread.) 

Ongoing statewide experiments do nothing to buttress the restaurant-as-super-spreader theory. Florida and New Jersey have roughly the same number of COVID-19 deaths per million; Florida’s dining establishments have been fully open since the end of September while New Jersey restaurants have operated at partial capacity for months.

Nonetheless, political leaders of both parties continue to one-up each other with preposterous rules to restrict both indoor and outdoor dining. The National Restaurant Association is encouraging members to abide by strict CDC guidance but the group also joined a lawsuit filed in Oregon to fight Governor Kate Brown’s dining ban and filed amicus briefs for similar lawsuits in Illinois and Michigan. Business owners in the Los Angeles area now are demanding data from local leaders in anticipation of yet another extension of the county’s order to keep restaurants and bars closed.

All of this heartache, by the way, for a virus with a 99 percent recovery rate for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Don’t want to risk it? Stay home. But that sentiment will get one condemned as a grandma killer or a heartless capitalist. The groupthink of the “expert” class is not to be questioned, especially by those lacking advanced degrees such as restaurant or bar owners.

“The free exchange of ideas, without fear of intimidation or rebuke, even ideas that people don’t necessarily agree with is the only pathway to discovery of scientific truth,” Atlas told me. “That’s the fundamental part of being an American the last I looked.”

Sadly, that’s becoming less true with each passing day.


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