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What Latest COVID Data in King County Says About Restaurant Risk

In the past 60 days, 15 percent of those who tested positive reported visiting a food-service establishment or restaurant before illness onset

Blue chairs and a wood table at a restaurant, with X’s marked at the corners of the tables and on the chairs
Outdoor seating is still permitted in Washington, but indoor dining is banned until at least December 14.

Just before Thanksgiving, Public Health — Seattle & King County released a new report on COVID-19 outbreaks and transmission. According to the latest data, community spread over the past two months has been highest within households, at workplaces, and from social gatherings, which includes visits to restaurants and bars. The department also reported that 15 percent of people testing positive over that timeframe cited visiting a food-service establishment or restaurant prior to the onset of illness (the report doesn’t include people who order takeout). Since the pandemic began, restaurants have accounted for the second highest number of non-healthcare-facility outbreaks in King County, including 40 in the past 60 days.

The report confirms most of what officials already knew and have been emphasizing: People gathering with others in social settings has contributed to an alarming spike in COVID cases in recent weeks. A look at the numbers also appears to reinforce the reasoning behind Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest restrictions, which seeks to limit holiday gatherings to members within a single household and puts a ban on indoor dining until December 14.

Industry groups and state lawmakers have pushed Inslee to reconsider the indoor dining restriction, warning that 100,000 hospitality jobs are in jeopardy. Some have cited a recent study from Clark, Pierce, and Walla Walla counties that reported less than one half of one percent of COVID cases were linked to restaurants. But Inslee and state health officials have pushed back on that study, noting that the data cited is incomplete and does not track with other scientific data that point to the efficacy of limiting indoor dining and studies that show eating inside enclosed spaces is a high-risk activity. The new King County report appears to confirm that notion, particularly with the 15 percent number representing all potential exposures from restaurant patrons.

But even that number may not tell the full story, since contact tracing is limited. “At these businesses, there is no guest or participant list allowing follow up with potentially exposed persons as there is in other settings like private social events or other community gatherings,” said King County health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin. “Also, information from interviews is often incomplete making it hard to recognize common exposures ... people may be exposed at more than one setting in the community and unless linked to an outbreak, we don’t often know with certainty which exposure led to the infection.”

While it’s still difficult to pinpoint exactly to what degree restaurants are linked to COVID spread in Seattle due to these limitations, the indication from all the latest available data — particularly the number of outbreaks — is that it’s enough to warrant great concern. The governor said in a press conference November 24 that the exponential growth of COVID cases in Washington is simply unsustainable, and he mentioned that it was possible more action might be needed if Washington’s health care facilities became overwhelmed.