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How Might Washington’s New COVID Exposure Notification App Impact Local Restaurants?

It’s a complement to contact tracing that aims to protect privacy without revealing personal info or location of users

A map with symbols of various people across a city grid receiving notifications, denoted by exclamation marks
WA Notify sends out anonymous codes to users when there has been a potential exposure to COVID-19.
WA Notify (YouTube)

On Monday, November 30, Washington state rolled out a new smartphone app that alerts users when they’ve potentially been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Officials hope that WA Notify — available on iPhone via Settings and to Android users through the Google Play store — can be an effective new tool in stemming the ongoing pandemic that has claimed the lives of 2,828 Washingtonians to date, while still protecting people’s privacy. The anonymous aspect of the app may be important to restaurants that once had reservations about logging customer information for contact tracing purposes, since this is more of a voluntary individual effort.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, the app is powered with Bluetooth technology, voluntary to use, and works to protect people’s privacy through basic alerts that don’t include any personal or location information. Each phone that enables the notifications exchanges random, anonymous codes with the phones of others nearby triggered by an algorithm that detects close contact as within six feet and for a duration of at least 15 minutes. “If another WA Notify user you’ve been near in the last two weeks later tests positive for COVID-19 and adds their verification code to the app, you’ll get an anonymous notification that you’ve had a possible exposure,” the department says in describing the functionality. The app does not store any identifying details of users, nor does it send information to local officials.

In a press conference officially announcing the app Monday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee said 200,000 Washingtonians had already signed up, and noted that adaptation of just 15 percent of smartphone users could reduce COVID infections by up to 11 percent and deaths by 11 to 15 percent. Other states, such as Colorado, Connecticut, and Maryland, have rolled out similar exposure notification apps.

In general, the impact of the app on restaurants may be minimal, at least at first. Even if people who, for instance, have an extended conversation by dining together at a table outside get notifications of exposure later on, the privacy protections won’t confirm that the transmission happened at any specific location. But the app could still help boost contact tracing efforts, which may help give a clearer picture on how COVID spread at restaurants is occurring. With more contact tracing precision, state policies impacting the hospitality industry could potentially be more targeted in their approach, although nothing is guaranteed if the recent alarming spike in cases doesn’t subside soon.

Of course, any effort that helps mitigate COVID transmission, in advance of a vaccine distribution, could be good news for businesses hoping to reopen sooner rather than later (as it stands, indoor dining is banned until December 14 across Washington). On Monday, Inslee said decisions on any potential additional restrictions are “not imminent,” but officials are keeping a close eye on the rise in cases following Thanksgiving to see if more drastic measures are necessary.