Want to Get Back to Theme Parks? Then Quit Going Out to Eat

November 11, 2020, 6:39 PM · A new peer-reviewed study suggests that the quickest way to get the Covid-19 pandemic under control is to limit the number of people visiting indoor venues where the virus is most likely to spread.

And what indoor venues might that be?

"Restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels," Stanford University computer scientist and senior report author Jure Leskovec said in a conference call with reporters, quoted in the New York Times.

The study looked at cell phone data from 10 U.S. cities to track 98 million people to and from indoor places and how long they stayed there. (Uh, check your phone apps' privacy settings lately?) Researchers started with local infection rates at the beginning of the pandemic, then used the mobility data to predict how the virus would spread in those communities. Their estimates lined up with what happened over the summer.

"A small minority of 'superspreader' [points of interest] account for a large majority of infections and that restricting maximum occupancy at each POI is more effective than uniformly reducing mobility," the authors wrote.

The National Restaurant Association pushed back against the study, but the spread of the virus within indoor restaurants is well established, which is why many communities have demanded limited capacities, physical distancing, and plastic barriers for restaurants to reopen.

Yet for every facility that takes all precautions against transmission, plenty of other restaurants, cafes, and bars have been inviting their patrons to leave their masks off and forget they're living in middle of a pandemic. The trick for authorities is singling out which specific restaurants and other "points of interest" are potential superspreader vectors.

Unfortunately for the theme park industry in California, the state's leadership seems to believe that Disneyland and other major theme parks are on that list. That's why those parks remain closed until their counties get to the state's "Tier 1" for minimal Covid-19 spread — a status for which no counties with major theme parks are even close. The best-known park that had been able to open under California's guidelines, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, had to close its rides after just one weekend when its county was moved up a tier this week.

Theme parks dispute that their venues are superspreader vectors. The new study did not look specifically at theme and amusement parks, but officials in Central Florida have said that they have not traced any outbreaks to the parks there.

But attendance at the Florida parks continues to lag traditional levels as millions of fans choose to stay home until they can be better assured not just that they will be safe but that the parks will go back to "normal," with rides operating at full capacities and shows, parades, and fireworks running again. The only way that is going to happen is for the pandemic to end.

New vaccines under testing offer some promise, but public cooperation can help, too. And for now, that means staying at home if you're feeling the least bit unwell, getting tested if that's the case, wearing your mask whenever you leave the house... and maybe getting takeout instead of sitting unmasked for an hour inside a restaurant.

The study is Chang, S. et al. Mobility network models of COVID-19 explain inequities and inform reopening. Nature (2020).

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Replies (26)

November 11, 2020 at 7:09 PM

May I nominate this for the Theme Park Insider Awards’ best title of a TPI article in 2020?

November 11, 2020 at 7:32 PM

I would rather see Disney and Universal shutter forever before the demise of restaurants. I'm fortunate to live in a city with a rich culinary scene. I will support the great, locally owned restaurants in Denver until this virus kills me. Sorry theme park fans.

November 11, 2020 at 9:28 PM

I agree as for supporting local restaurants and won't try to change your opinion. However, getting takeout or eating outside means supporting the restaurants while staying much safer.

November 11, 2020 at 10:16 PM

I work for a tech company who has a lot invested in the hospitality and restaurant industry. I work closely with a lot of hospitality clients and used to be in the industry myself. My wife was an event planner for a major hotel chain. She's been furloughed and since laid off since this started. We have a lot of friends and colleagues that we've seen pushed to the brink or lose it all since this pandemic started. My feelings on this position are strong. I agree that takeout and eating outdoors is better than nothing but I know all too well that doesn't save these small businesses. There is a lot on the line.

November 11, 2020 at 10:11 PM

Where I live (Montreal) the restaurants are all closed. It's takeout and delivery only.

November 11, 2020 at 10:56 PM

"The study looked at cell phone data from 10 U.S. cities to track 98 million people to and from indoor places and how long they stayed there. (Uh, check your phone apps' privacy settings lately?)"

Man, I keep forgetting that privacy is almost non-existent now a days. I remember when a lot of the major cellular service companies went down for a day or so back in I think May or June. Then when they came back on, people noticed in their iphones (sorry Android ppl, not sure about y'all) that there was a new feature in the "privacy" section of settings called "covid exposure". Now it is a n official section of settings, but it was snuck in in the beginning. I remember a conspiracy theory that the government or apple meant for everything to "shut down" so they could put a tracker in your phone to monitor your whereabouts and activities. I mean it could be true... but I digress. Anyways, as much as technology helps us in everyday life, it's scary to know that if someone got into the apple system, they could track my location, find where I live, and use my phone camera and laptop camera to look at me, without me ever knowing. Really makes you think what could happen if a big government got a hold and exploited this advancement in technology... cough cough China cough. My friend's mom went to China and took pictures, but when she came home back to the states, some of her pictures were missing. Anyways, this is very off topic for the article written but that statement caught my eye.

As for restaurants, I can see why they're a big spreader for Covid. Close contact with your party, and then the waiter is constantly walking down the aisles breathing in everyones breath for hours. Plus the people in the kitchen are all in close contact. Stay safe everyone.

November 11, 2020 at 11:48 PM

Indoor dining is one of the few things I still feel a bit iffy about, and I've only done it a handful of times since March (usually off hours on hotter days, so the restaurant wasn't too busy anyway). I'm not for pinning everything on the restaurant industry and saying that they should shut down (especially when private gatherings are still the #1 source of spread), but I do think they should rein in some of what is currently being permitted. There are ways to dine out responsibly, such as not dining with those outside your household, sitting outside when reasonable, and keeping your mask on until there's food on the table. However, it bothers me how many are willing to seat large parties that are clearly from many different households and how quickly many customers remove their masks once seated.

Like I've been saying for months, we're beyond the point where saying "You can't..." is going to be helpful. Instead, our leaders need to find ways to say "You can if..." Restaurants are no different, and both customers and staff need to take responsibility for doing everything they can to reduce risk while allowing operation as close to normal as safely possible.

November 12, 2020 at 12:24 AM

Illinois had shelter orders from mid-March to last weekend of May then outdoor dining only until last weekend of June. And Pritzker wanted to extend that but under pressure from business owners and such and metrics were good and remained good for a bit.

Sadly, this meant Illinois also had traffic from several states (like Iowa, Missouri and Indiana) who didn't take it nearly as seriously combined with attitude (especially down state) that "it's getting better). So in last week of October, he shut down indoor dining again after new spikes which probably cost Illinois the fair tax amendment due to backlash of business owners. And Chicago mayor Lightfoot not happy over the hurt business.

Last Saturday, a warm weekend of 70 degrees on Saturday and walking around my town, every outdoor pub area pretty packed, folks tight in tables and many ignoring mask mandates. Granted, a celebratory mood over Biden but still jarring to me so I decided to just head home to get a pizza. But spikes are growing so it's now "recommended" just go out for work and store and the emphasis clear Pritzker is in a "I don't want to shut down but if it can't stop rising..." mood.

Sadly, the mentality came that the worst was over and forgetting the history of surges and waves, aided by the fact that there are still states that never did shelter orders and dragged their feet on mask mandates. Now, folks thinking a vaccine coming means they can slack off more.

@AJHummell: My town's pubs had everything from temp checks before folks came in to screens set up at bars and tables spread out and some empty. But when a state that actually handled the initial wave right is seeing such huge spikes, it's little wonder places that never did are even worse as human stupidity and desire for a "normal" life overwhelms rationality.

November 12, 2020 at 12:34 AM

@AndrewL: Look, as soon as dining was reopened in Illinois, I did go out, outdoors and indoors a couple of times. I wanted to help these places out, I did my best and most were very good about screens/distancing, etc.

But you know what else hurts these businesses? People getting ill from a deadly pandemic. And how scores of folks have gotten sick because someone didn't feel like wearing a mask while getting a beer for a ball game they could easily have watched at home. I get your worries, so am I for scores of businesses but it's once more how folks failed to take this seriously and "get back to normal" that helped lead to another mess.

November 12, 2020 at 11:09 AM

@MikeW: I get what you're saying and understand the reasons this isn't working. I'm just frustrated and most of it probably stems from the people you point out.

November 12, 2020 at 12:43 AM

@AndrewL: I am upset that it looked like we were turning a corner a few months back...then folks got lazy about obeying restrictions and demanding the return of things like movie theaters, sports and oh, yes, theme parks. And again, the fringe who think this is all "nothing more than a flu" and of course, a certain figure holding mass rallies that are already showing superspreader red spots.

And just read the very first cruise to the Carribbean that started a week ago? A passenger tested positive. We are a stupid, stupid breed.

November 12, 2020 at 1:31 AM

@Postcott - Thank you for that helpful info about iPhone, privacy and COVID logging. It seems that lots of people are being tracked by their iPhones for COVID exposure and don't know they're being tracked.

(It's under Settings > Privacy > Health > COVID-19 Exposure Logging. It can easily be toggled On/Off.)

November 12, 2020 at 1:39 AM

Mike, can we stop harping on Illinois and giving them excessive praise? They may have done a great job initially, but this thing is about more than one wave, and on the whole they have had below average performance. Despite some of the strictest regulations in the country, the state has been over 10 cases per 100k residents since late July, and currently ranks 7th in the country for that at 84.3. Whether that is because said guidelines were poorly targeted or simply not followed I can't say, but the data suggests they're the worst performing of the highly populated states.

If you want to look at a state that did a great job with this thing, I'd nominate Virginia. Not only have they kept the number of infections below 20 per 100k the entire time, but they've crafted policies that have allowed for almost all businesses to operate in some form (even if operation was less than ideal) since mid July and are currently one of the lowest ranking states in the country for COVID risk.

November 12, 2020 at 2:00 AM

@AJ Hummel: Keep in mind, having third-largest city in the country adds to numbers. And look at the overall trends over the last seven months, yes, much better than most of the country up through October at which point the surge began with the rest of the nation. And again, we've had mask mandates longer than other states and warnings on businesses but folks were too lax about following and we're surrounded by states that never took it as seriously.

And I harp on them because had the rest of the nation followed the lead of a short-term shelter/mask mandate in spring, it would have helped. So would a President who, after catching it himself, talked about how important mask/distancing was rather than, you know, say "nothing to be afraid of" and hold super-spreader rallies. Common sense would have worked so much better.

November 12, 2020 at 8:28 AM

@AJ - That's what happens when you have a former medical doctor serving as your governor. I'm not politically aligned with Northam, and I haven't agreed completely with his policies (I still don't agree with the 1,000-person hard cap regardless of facility size), but Virginia has been one of the best performing states. Virginia has one of the more diverse populations in the country with rural, suburban, and major urban populations all inside a commonwealth of 8.5 million people, and is very evenly split politically and philosophically.

As far as eating out, the study makes perfect sense, especially with the ample empirical evidence tracing infections to bars and indoor establishments. Personally, we haven't eaten at an indoor table service restaurant since before the pandemic began. As a family, we don't normally eat out anyway (I do all the cooking), so it's rare that we eat in a restaurant anyway (I do occasionally go to a downtown bar for weekend soccer matches, but haven't since January). The only other times we would normally eat out is when we're on vacation, which we haven't taken since we returned from WDW back in early February. I think the explosion of the restaurant industry has increased people's reliance on eating out. I know many people who eat out 6-7 days a week including lunch on workdays. Even before the pandemic, we ate out no more than 3-4 times a month, and always had boxed lunches at work.

November 12, 2020 at 11:27 AM

Every time restrictions are eased, a surge follows. Nearly every state is having a surge now. It doesn’t matter what restrictions they had in place last spring, last summer, or even last month. Doesn’t matter if the states were “red” or “blue”, either. The only way for the virus to be contained would be a total lockdown much like countries other than the US has done, but as we are seeing now, even that was a temporary measure we they eased restrictions.

Basically what I’m saying is not a whole lot can be done to stop this virus from spreading short of each and every one of us barricading ourselves in our houses.

November 12, 2020 at 11:29 AM

And Robert, I know you have little control over this, but I find it funny that as I read this article there were McDonald’s ads rolling through it.

November 12, 2020 at 11:37 AM

I love how @Andrew sayS "sorry theme park fans". Andrew if you are reading this site, aren't you a Theme Park Fan ?! P.S. @TwoBits GREAT POINT !

November 12, 2020 at 12:11 PM

Not even a little bit. No.

November 12, 2020 at 12:49 PM

I have a doctor friend in California that says he believes the recent rise in cases is due to young people congregating and families from different households eating together. He thinks that the restrictions on theme parks is too strict, because they are mostly outdoors. When I pointed out that Disneyland has indoor rides, he said that being indoors is not a problem if you wear a mask, it's eating without a mask, and presumably the social interaction at the table that causes the spread. So people should be aware to keep their masks on at the table, and only remove them while actually eating. It's easy to forget, but you do what you have to do.

November 12, 2020 at 1:51 PM

Funny you mention that today, Disfan, because the governor of my state has just released new guidelines for schools that are still in-person. Prior to today, any student or faculty member who has come into close contact with a person who has tested positive must quarantine for 14 days. As of today the rule has been changed to be that if both the person with the positive test and the other party are wearing masks, then only the positive case will need quarantining.

November 12, 2020 at 2:06 PM

@TwoBits - That seems to be how most sports leagues are managing it too basing quarantine requirements on masking. However, the average person is not wearing proximity trackers (like the NFL) or as disciplined as elite athletes. Nor are they getting tested daily (or multiple times per week).

November 12, 2020 at 2:21 PM

@Russell Meyer: That does seem an issue, some folks get a test, it's okay and don't think about another for a while. As we've seen, you can go free of it for a while then get it (happened a lot already in NFL) so regular testing should be more common but that brings up issues of kits and such to muddle things up.

November 13, 2020 at 11:01 AM

This morning the news reports in my state were that many schools were going to ignore the governor’s guidelines and continue the mass quarantining when one student in school tests positive. Many of those schools were closed anyway (or never reopened in the first place), so little has really changed.

November 14, 2020 at 8:17 AM

I'll be the first to admit I'm biased since I work in hospitality, but this study seems like the classic mistake of forgetting that correlation does not imply causation. The peer review part of the paper raises many concerns.

Here are a few parts from the peer review that describe the problems with the paper:

"I cannot recommend publication in the current form because it is not possible to judge if the model actually fits well."

"Gas stations 6x more transmission in Philadelphia. What are the absolute values of transmission, i.e. are gas stations generating a lot? This is a little confusing, because there is little person-to-person interaction at gas stations"

"The spotlighting of particular categories of POIs and their differential effect by SES is a fascinating and novel hypothesis, but is not completely compelling because all of these other issues are assumed not to contribute."

"These should be seen as hypotheses generated by the model rather than as descriptions of COVID-19 transmission, and that needs to be clarified throughout."

You can read the entire peer review part here:


November 17, 2020 at 7:14 AM

This is not negative in any way, but I am not convinced that restaurants are the only issue. There are a myriad of reasons why things are getting bad, and the only correct assumption is one that is scientifically vetted. My thought is that during the fall more people are congregating and it is getting into the rural areas. Remember, this all started with a very small number of people and folks are clearly dropping their guard. Not said as a political statement, mind you, it just is what it is. I am in a state that has regularly been in the top ten. Our numbers have continued to rise, yet we have fallen out of the top ten due the rises elsewhere. Also, none of my observations are scientific, just based on personal observations. Businesses that exhibit common sense and safety should be allowed to be open. Those that don’t should not. You can watch college football and see problems along with many other things. However, WDW has done a very good job with managing safety. The problem is there are so many unscientific, inconsistent regulations based on many factors it is head scratching. The NCAA can allow masses to get together and scream, yet other venues that have known safe practices cannot be open makes little sense. Anyway, good luck to everyone in whatever you are doing.

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