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Experts Say It Takes This Long to Catch COVID-19 at a Bar or Restaurant

Several major risk factors converge in a perfect storm of coronavirus exposure.

As much as we'd like to get back to normal, the United States in nowhere near out of the woods with the coronavirus pandemic. And while the exhausted economy is begging for a revival, reopened restaurants and bars across the country were quickly identified as places of particular concern when it comes to the ways the virus is still being spread. Why do these places pose such a high risk?

Several factors are at play here. First and foremost, we now know coronavirus spreads from person to person via respiratory droplets as well as aerosols, which are even tinier particles of liquid expelled through breathing, laughing, and talking. These mist-like droplets are invisible, but can travel larger distances through the air. While chances of this type of transmission are significantly decreased by face coverings, there are some social situations in which wearing a mask is nearly impossible. Eating and drinking in a restaurant or bar is one of them.

Proximity to others also plays a huge role, as well as whether or not socializing activities are taking place in an indoor space or outdoors. In confined spaces like restaurant dining rooms, droplets and aerosols can linger in the air longer, whereas outdoors, they dissipate more quickly, putting you at a lower risk of infection.

Prolonged exposure is a major factor

Experts have also identified the amount of time one is exposed to respiratory droplets as a significant factor in whether or not a person will become infected. Dr. John Brooks, CDC's chief medical officer for coronavirus response, told The Wall Street Journal that prolonged exposure to someone less than 6 feet away is much more likely to spread the infection than short, fleeting contact of the same nature. Prolonged exposure is defined as approximately 15 minutes, but Brooks cautions the infection can be transmitted instantly if someone were to engage in more intimate forms of contact, or if sneezing or coughing are involved.

In fact, prolonged contact can compound the risk of infection even in outdoor settings where people generally feel safer. Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech professor with expertise in airborne transmission of viruses, told the WSJ that small and large droplets pose a risk outdoors if people are in close, prolonged contact.

Places that maximize coronavirus risk

Taking all of these factors into account, it's clear that you're at most risk for contracting coronavirus while in close contact with others for a prolonged period of time in an enclosed or a poorly ventilated space. Spending time in indoor restaurants and bars checks almost all of these boxes—they are prone to crowds for prolonged periods of time (certainly longer than 15 minutes), and patrons are going to be taking their masks off to consume food and beverages. Don't forget to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest restaurants news delivered straight to your inbox.

Eat This, Not That! is constantly monitoring the latest food news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed (and answer your most urgent questions). Here are the precautions you should be taking at the grocery store, the foods you should have on hand, the meal delivery services and restaurant chains offering takeout you need to know about, and ways you can help support those in need. We will continue to update these as new information develops. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date.
Mura Dominko
Mura is a Deputy Editor leading ETNT's coverage of America's favorite fast foods and restaurant chains. Read more about Mura
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