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Sept. 25, 2020, 9:13 a.m. EDT

Americans are starting to feel more comfortable eating at restaurants, but experts say to proceed with caution

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By Elisabeth Buchwald

A growing share of Americans feel comfortable dining out now despite the health risks it poses. 

Some 39% of U.S. adults say they’re comfortable eating out, according to a Sept. 18-20 survey of more than 2,200 Americans conducted by Morning Consult . That’s the highest share reported since the second week of June, when some 41% of Americans said they were comfortable.

After the second week of June, the share of Americans comfortable eating out declined amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases in many parts of the country, including Texas, Arizona and California. Only recently did that share return to June’s high. 

That’s good news for the restaurant industry, which has taken a huge hit during the pandemic due to forced closures and restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. 

As a result, many eateries have permanently closed , according to Yelp /zigman2/quotes/201334325/composite YELP -2.70% data.

Related: Airlines, restaurants on Pelosi’s radar for additional aid in another COVID-19 bill

Though they may be feeling more comfortable about eating in restaurants, Americans may want to proceed with caution, health experts say.

People who tested positive for coronavirus were approximately twice as likely to have reported eating recently at a restaurant compared to people who tested negative. That’s according to a Sept. 11 report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report’s findings were based on an investigation of symptomatic patients at 11 U.S. health care facilities. It found that having close contact with people known to have COVID-19 or visiting establishments that offered “on-site eating or drinking options were associated with COVID-19 positivity.”

The investigation compared two groups, one made up of people who had tested positive, and another of symptomatic patients who had tested negative. The people who had tested positive were more likely to report dining at a restaurant, including indoor, patio and outdoor seating in the two weeks before the onset of their illness, the CDC said.

“Exposures and activities where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, including going to places that offer on-site eating or drinking, might be important risk factors for acquiring COVID-19,” the authors wrote.

However, the authors noted several limitations to the findings in the report. One was that researchers didn’t ask patients to distinguish between indoor and outdoor dining when they asked them about eating at restaurants.

Similarly, the Morning Consult survey did not ask participants to make a distinction between the two regarding their comfort levels. 

From a health standpoint, the distinction between outdoor and indoor dining could be quite significant. 

Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for three decades, said in a July interview with MarketWatch that he would not dine out at any restaurant, be it inside or outside. 

He acknowledged, however, that indoor dining is “much worse” than outdoors. “If you’re going to go to a restaurant, try as best as you can to have outdoor seating that is properly spaced between the tables,” Fauci said.

One of the advantages of eating outdoors is that air circulation is generally better outdoors than indoors because particles have more room to be dispersed, Ryan Malosh, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told MarketWatch in late July .

“Outdoors, a light breeze can disperse particles with no constraint on the distance they can then travel,” Malosh said. That’s important because diners don’t tend to wear masks outdoors.

Wearing masks indoors can significantly lower the chances of dispersing virus-containing particles, said Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo.

“Whenever there’s a scenario where everyone can wear masks at all times the risk is lower,” Russo said. “When eating you physically can’t wear a mask but you can minimize that risk by popping it back on between bites.”

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