Local health officials say there is little evidence Salem restaurants and bars are helping spread Covid

Libby Anderson serves coffee at Archive with a mask and safe distancing on June 17, 2020. (Cathy Cheney/Salem Reporter)

Diners have been cut off from sitting down for meals in the Salem area and county officials say they aren’t sure that’s a necessary move to contain the coronavirus. 

Authorities in Marion and Polk counties say they have seen no evidence that Covid is spreading because people are in restaurants and bars. Their tracking of infected people hasn’t revealed any pattern linking the illness to those establishments. 

But the state’s top health official said that while the Oregon Health Authority can’t prove the restaurant link, the mechanics of Covid spread make such businesses a likely place for infections to spread. 

Gov. Kate Brown’s order effective on Wednesday to limit restaurants and bars to takeout service only has puzzled and even angered the business community, legislators and county officials. Brown invoked the limit for at least two weeks but warned they could stay in place in counties where Covid remains out of control. 

The impact has been immediate. Restaurants and bars said they were laying off employees just as the holiday season starts up. Some are closing altogether. 

Brown acted as state cases climbed to record numbers, Portland hospitals started limiting services, and other governors across the country began imposing new Covid restrictions. 

Marion County recorded 759 new infections in the past week but Marion County health officials said they’re not yet worried about the region’s hospital capacity. They noted that most of the new cases are among younger residents who are less likely to become seriously ill. 

Craig Pope, Polk County commissioner, said he wants to help Oregon get the virus’ spread under control, but it’s hard for him to see state restrictions as science-based when the county’s health department hasn’t tied Covid spread back to restaurants. 

“Show us the data. Because in Polk County, we can’t point to any of these completely closed businesses with contact tracing data that supports that,” Pope said. He said he and other county commissioners weren’t consulted before the latest round of restrictions were rolled out.

Liz Merah, Brown’s press secretary, said the governor is consulting with all commissioners about a path toward reopening. She said the restrictions are an effort to balance slowing the virus’ spread with keeping businesses open.

“The majority of the increased cases we have been seeing over the past few weeks are not linked to any specific outbreaks, but rather reflective of sporadic community spread. This is a dangerous situation. It means the virus is out there, spreading in our communities, making it very difficult to trace. There is ample nationwide data that eating indoors in enclosed spaces poses risks for spreading COVID-19,” Merah wrote in an email.

Marion and Polk county officials said their data doesn’t indicate significant restaurant transmission of Covid, and they’re frustrated by the state giving more weight to outbreak data from other states than what is occurring locally.  

The Oregon AFL-CIO used state outbreak reports to identify 274 cases of Covid tied to 24 restaurant outbreaks around the state. That’s out of more than 60,000 infections reported since the pandemic started in February. 

The restaurant industry points to such information in questioning Brown order to stop dine-in service. 

Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, reiterated the industry response to the new shutdown pointing out that Oregon Health Authority data doesn’t show restaurants or bars to be a large driver of new infections. He also pointed to remarks from the governor and public health officials that home gatherings, where people are less likely to social distance or wear masks, have been a source of the virus’ spread. 

“There’s a widespread problem with the level of comfort we all have in private settings, and the tendency to feel more comfortable with people that you know, and trust,” he said. 

He said that restaurants have been following public health protocols with masks, sanitization and distancing that aren’t present in private settings. 

While Oregon reports specific business outbreaks, they’re only disclosed when five or more cases are tied to one location. The state has not published data about the total number of cases or outbreaks tied to the restaurant industry.

Other states have reported a far larger share of cases related to restaurant outbreaks, the New York Times reported. In Washington, restaurants have been tied to 151 Covid outbreaks statewide this year – more than any other type of non-healthcare business. The state’s rules for restaurants during the pandemic are similar to Oregon’s. 

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist with Oregon Health Authority, told Salem Reporter linking Covid infections to a bar or restaurant is difficult. He said the state likely is underreporting cases that can be tied to restaurants. 

Someone who gets Covid may have reported eating in a restaurant and attending a party with the same group of people, for example. 

“If there’s multiple possibilities about where they’ve been infected, we don’t necessarily link that to a bar or restaurant,” Sidelinger said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that transmission is not happening there.” 

Restaurants, he said, have circumstances in which the virus is known to spread best: people are maskless and talking, often loudly, which increases the projection of virus-carrying droplets into the air, and they’re in enclosed spaces. 

“That setting is more risky,” Sidelinger said. And the risk increases as the prevalence of Covid in Oregon climbs, because people are more likely to be sharing a table with someone who has Covid and don’t realize it. 

“When restaurants serve take-away only during the freeze, it helps us achieve that goal of limiting contact during a critical moment when cases and hospitalizations are spiking,” Merah said in an email. “These new restrictions keep businesses open and model the changes we need Oregonians to make in limiting social gatherings and get-togethers.”

When an Oregonian tests positive for Covid, health workers ask them about where they’ve been recently to try to determine where they got sick. Those answers are recorded in the case notes, and may include information about whether someone went out to eat. 

Because of the way the information is tracked now, there’s no way to run a report seeing what percentage of Oregonians who got Covid reported eating in a restaurant in the prior two weeks, Sidelinger said. 

And health officials generally are having a harder time tracking the sources of infections because Covid is becoming so widespread. In October, about one in three people in Marion County with Covid couldn’t provide enough information for officials to conclude where they got the virus. 

With the number of new cases growing quickly, the state health authority is allowing county health departments to shorten interviews with people who test positive for Covid and focus on exposures in high-risk settings like long-term care facilities. That means officials have even less information to work with. 

As of Nov. 17, Marion County had recorded 7,623 cases of Covid since March, with just over a quarter tied to outbreaks at workplaces, businesses, prisons and long-term care facilities.  

The latest report counted 72 cases tied to restaurants or bars – fewer than 1% of the total. About half of recorded cases in November can’t be traced back to a known source, though Katrina Rothenberger, the county public health director, said that number will decrease as contact tracers find links between cases. 

Commissioner Colm Willis said he brought up the lack of local data on a call with Gov. Kate Brown earlier this week.  

“We’ve identified 7,000 cases of Covid. We’ve traced a majority of those. We should have seen it in the data if it was there,” Willis said. He and other local commissioners have urged her office to take a county-by-county approach to moving out of the “freeze,” he said. 

Ryan Matthews, health and human services administrator for Marion County, said his larger concern is about people socializing outside their own household in a way that isn’t safe, whether they do that inside a restaurant or at someone’s house. He said cooler temperatures are driving people indoors, where transmission is more likely, and “Covid fatigue” has more people flouting recommendations about masking and social distancing when seeing friends. 

Closing down restaurants doesn’t change that behavior, he said. 

“If you have a group that is set on going out and socializing together, the other option is they get takeout food and go to their houses and socialize together,” he said. Better education about how to socialize safely is important, he said, particularly as the weather cools down and outdoor gatherings are less feasible. 

Gatherings of six or more people or two or more households are also now prohibited in Oregon under Brown’s order. Local police agencies have indicated they don’t plan to arrest or cite people for violating that mandate. 

Willis said widespread Covid testing with fast results remains the biggest need for controlling the spread of Covid locally.  

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had here in Marion County is people will take a Covid test when they’re exhibiting symptoms but they’ll still go to work or still go to social gatherings while they’re waiting for results back,” Willis said.

Rapid testing at more places in the community would help detect those infections, he said, and keep workers from spreading the virus into long-term care facilities where most local deaths have occurred. But that effort depends on a more regular supply of rapid tests from the federal government. 

The county health department is working with the University of Oregon to establish regular weekly testing events open to anyone, Rothenberger said. That isn’t expected to start until January. 

Pope said he’d like to see the state focus on enforcing existing rules and doing more to educate the public about measures that work like wearing masks and social distancing. He acknowledged some restaurants are violating Covid rules, but suggested OSHA was a better avenue for enforcement.  

He said it’s hard to explain the seeming arbitrariness of Covid rules to struggling local businesses who have complied with health rules and must now close while malls, casinos and college dorms remain open. 

“Lots of us are trying to find ways, how can we be helpful. But we’re not being asked. We’re being told,” Pope said. 

Jake Thomas contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.