Experts: Increased restaurant capacity partly to blame for COVID surge in CT

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Diners eat lunch at Max's Oyster Bar in West Hartford, Conn., Friday, March 19, 2021.

Diners eat lunch at Max's Oyster Bar in West Hartford, Conn., Friday, March 19, 2021.

Jessica Hill/AP

Some health experts are concerned that loosening COVID restrictions, specifically restaurant capacity, has contributed to a new surge of cases in Connecticut.

“Dine-in at restaurants is a risky activity because, by necessity, people can't wear masks while eating, and most restaurants will not have the level of ventilation to make that indoors environment safe from airborne viral transmission,” said Pedro Mendes, a researcher and professor in computational biology at UConn.

In March, Gov. Ned Lamont began allowing increased indoor capacity in Connecticut restaurants. He announced restaurants could go to 100 percent capacity on March 19, with the caveat that social distancing and mask rules would remain in place.

"Tomorrow's a big day. I think we've earned it as a state, I know the restaurants have earned it," Lamont said on March 18. "So come back and support your local restaurants.”

But the 5 percent daily COVID test positivity rate the state announced Tuesday follows a recent trend showing the continued spread of the coronavirus in the state.

Some experts say loosening restrictions on indoor dining while more infectious variants continue to spread is part of the reason for the increase.

Yale’s Nathan Grubaugh said on Twitter that the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant would make loosening restrictions a bad idea.

“I was concerned about Gov. Ned Lamont relaxing restrictions on indoor gatherings — like bars/restaurants — on (March 19). It was too soon,” he said. “Now we are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, which the B.1.1.7 ... is likely exacerbating.”

It’s not just Connecticut. Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week the virus spreads when people congregate.

“Even if on the planes people are wearing masks, when you get to the airport, the check-in lines, the food lines for restaurants, the boarding that you see, how people sometimes can be congregating together, those are the kind of things that invariably increase the risk of getting infected,” Fauci said.

Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said there is no hard evidence to indicate restaurants in Connecticut are a source of transmission.

“There has been nothing proven to say that restaurants have caused an increase of spread,” he said, arguing the state did not see an increase in cases in June when indoor dining was reintroduced.

“Our restaurants in Connecticut have been open since June 15 indoor,” Dolch said.

Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont, said Tuesday that while there has been an increase in cases, it’s impossible to pin that on any one cause.

“It’s difficult to look at any one decision in a vacuum throughout the entire pandemic and draw conclusions,” he said.

Reiss also noted that while cases have increased — “there is definitely still virus in the community,” he said — COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths have remained lower, a result of the state’s vaccination efforts.

The state announced Tuesday a total of 1,074 new coronavirus cases, and 21 more COVID-related hospitalizations, increasing the statewide total to 505. There were also seven more COVID-related deaths. To date, 7,930 Connecticut residents have died with COVID.

While restaurants are allowed to reach 100 percent capacity, they are also required to maintain a 6-foot distance between tables, making that capacity limitation a moot point, some restaurateurs say.

“The typical increase is anywhere from 10 and 12 percent,” on top of the 50 percent capacity that was allowed in June, Dolch said.

Close to 400 people have signed a petition on Change.org, encouraging Lamont to keep restaurant restrictions in place.

“At 100 percent capacity, with those sitting at restaurants and bars not wearing face masks will turn those establishments into super-spreader events,” the petition says. “One cannot eat or drink wearing a mask!”

Joel Leyden, who created the petition, said the virus “is not aware of a 6-foot limit nor does it care about Plexiglass between restaurant tables.”

“The only people who should be allowed to enter an indoor restaurant are those who have been vaccinated,” he said.