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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