After months of waiting, and an aggravating false start just before the July Fourth weekend, indoor dining will finally resume in New Jersey ahead of the Labor Day weekend on Sept. 4. Gov. Phil Murphy said he is confident that the spread of COVID-19 has slowed down enough that this final stretch of restrictions could be relaxed.
The Tuesday morning executive order from the governor to formally allow indoor dining to resume, and the accompanying guidelines from the Department of Health, are almost identical to ones issued in June outlining what would have been a July 2 restart. But this time around, the requirements also include a litany of ways to increase indoor ventilation – an issue that Murphy has typically described as a tough nut to crack and the main reason he wouldn’t previously allow indoor dining.
To account for a potential lack of indoor ventilation, doors and windows have to be kept open when possible, and fans should be utilized. Air conditioning units have to run the entire time the restaurant is open, and at least two hours before and after it closes, to vent out the facility.
The units have to reduce how much air is circulated inside, constantly pumping in air from outdoors. And they should consider utilizing air filtration to make sure there is as much clean, fresh air as possible.
“The more dilution we have, the more air flow we have, the better it is,” said Gediminas Mainelis, an environmental science professor at Rutgers University and head of its Bioaerosol Laboratory.
The importance of ventilation cannot be understated.
— Corey Basch, public health professor, William Paterson University
Face coverings, except when at the table and eating and drinking, and the 25 percent reduced capacity, both also help, he added.
“If you have a filtration unit and you have more air that dilutes it, then you minimize” the chance of person-to-person spread, Mainelis added.
Michael Gusmano, a researcher at the nonprofit New York City-based Hastings Center, was more cautiously optimistic about how indoor dining could fare.
“The big question I have is about enforcement and what happens if and when these conditions get violated,” he said in an interview.
If “tables are spaced, customers are wearing masks and everyone is engaged in hand-washing and other public behavior,” then “you can have this modest” amount “of indoor dining without causing the kinds of spikes that lead to indoor shutdowns,” he said. “If you don’t have those conditions and you’re rolling within a couple of months into cold and flu season, the combination” could lead to a shutdown.
Sylvia Twersky, assistant professor of public health at The College of New Jersey, was not so convinced on the safety of resuming indoor dining, and felt the state was moving in a worrisome direction by loosening those restrictions.
“I think it is poor timing to coincide opening up indoor dining and gyms at the same time as kids and teachers are heading back to school,” Twersky said in an email.
Indoor dining by its very nature is much riskier, she explained, because patrons are at a table without masks, typically for an hour—more than enough time for the virus to spread through the entire group if any of them have it.
I think it is poor timing to coincide opening up indoor dining and gyms at the same time as kids and teachers are heading back to school.
— Sylvia Twersky, assistant professor of public health, The College of New Jersey
“Increased community transmission rates put children and teachers who are back at school at higher risk,” she added. “I would not recommend taking actions that will likely increase community transmission when we are trying to get kids and teachers back to school safely.”
She expected a rebound of COVID-19 once these activities are allowed to resume, “based on other state’s experiences with reopening indoor dining and other indoor activities.”
An oft-cited study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted how COVID-19 was able to spread through an indoor restaurant in Guangzhou, China, thanks to air conditioning.
“From Jan. 26 through Feb. 10, 2020, an outbreak of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVD-19) affected 10 persons from 3 families … who had eaten at the same air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou, China,” the report reads. “One of the families had just traveled from Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. We performed a detailed investigation that linked these 10 cases together.”
Meanwhile, at the global level, the World Health Organization has locked horns with many scientists who’ve argued that the virus can linger indoors and infect nearby patrons, leading to airborne transmission, especially in crowded indoor spaces like bars and restaurants.
“The importance of ventilation cannot be understated,” said Corey Basch, a public health professor at William Paterson University.
Many health experts agree that returning to indoor dining would ultimately be a personal choice – patrons will have to decide whether they’re willing to take the risk.
“You place yourself at greater risk if you are eating indoors,” Basch added. “Like many other aspects of life right now, one should consider if the benefits outweigh the risk and what the potential alternatives are.”
But that risk ultimately extends to the business owner as well, and from a financial point of view.
“To tell us to keep all the doors and windows open and jack up the AC? Who’s paying for all this?” said Marilyn Schlossbach, board chair for the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, the state’s trade group for those two industries, which has lobbied the administration to scale back restrictions on indoor dining.
“A business owner has to make the calculation, is it worth opening up and can I financially sustain it,” said Donna Schaffner, professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University. “It’s all risk trade-offs. What are the costs of having indoor dining and adding these precautions versus maintaining indoor dining and take-out?”
But restaurateurs have argued that impending cold weather would render outdoor dining unfeasible.
“We live in the Northeast, you can maybe stretch this out longer than you normally would with heat lamps and all … but eventually it’s going to snow,” Gusmano said.