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Cutting capacity would curb spread better than curfew on bars, restaurants, COVID-19 expert says

Cutting capacity would curb spread better than curfew on bars, restaurants, COVID-19 expert says


The state’s new curfew for bars and restaurants isn’t likely to significantly slow virus spread, the University of Oklahoma’s COVID chief says, adding that a new study shows limiting the capacity at those establishments would be more effective.

Few restaurants are open past the 11 p.m. cutoff, and Dr. Dale Bratzler said he sees anecdotally that bars are crowded well before that time.

However, the new requirement of 6 feet of distance between tables could result in a de facto reduction to capacity at some establishments, said Bratzler, enterprise chief quality officer for OU Medicine.

“It might be a good thing,” he said. “I don’t know how many restaurants will have to make substantial changes with respect to the number of people that can do indoor dining or not with this, and whether anybody will be actually enforcing it or regulating it.”

The White House Coronavirus Task Force report dated Nov. 15 noted that effective practices to decrease transmission in public spaces include limiting indoor restaurant capacity to less than 25% and restricting hours until weekly case rates and test positivity decrease into yellow-zone guidelines.

In response to drastically rising COVID-19 hospitalizations, Gov. Kevin Stitt on Monday signed an executive order to place some limitations on bars and restaurants, including the 11 p.m. curfew that still allows for curbside, drive-through or delivery services. Stitt also directed that those establishments must ensure at least six feet of distance between tables and bar tops, unless separated by properly sanitized dividers.

Stitt again urged people to wear masks but didn’t announce a statewide mandate.

“Each one of us has a role to play in this fight,” Stitt said. “I need every Oklahoman to think about what they personally can do to help slow the spread.”

Bratzler said he has been supporting restaurants by doing “tons of carryout” to safely distance himself.

He pointed to a model developed by Stanford University researchers, which found that more effective than uniform lockdowns are restrictions to maximum occupancy of places associated with the highest risks for COVID-19 spread.

Bratzler called the study fascinating and detailed, saying the researchers demonstrated their model “worked very, very well.”

The Stanford study analyzed the cellphone mobility data of 98 million people in 10 of the nation’s largest metros from this past spring. Full-service restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes, religious organizations and limited-service restaurants on average were settings where the largest predicted increase of infections happened after they reopened from stay-at-home orders, according to the researchers.

“These results support earlier findings that precise interventions, like reducing maximum occupancy, may be more effective than less targeted measures, while incurring substantially lower economic costs,” according to the study.

Published Nov. 10 online in Nature, the study’s model predicts a small minority of “superspreader” points of interest — or high-risk settings — account for a large majority of infections. So, the researchers note, a disproportionately large reduction in infections can be achieved with a small decrease in visits in these particular places.

Bratzler said it confirms what public health officials in Oklahoma had gleaned early on from contact tracing efforts. Now, he said, people are less forthcoming with contact tracers about where they have been and the sheer number of cases have made it difficult for contact tracers to keep up.

“One of the points (researchers) made down at the end was that you don’t need to lock down or do stay-at-home, you need to control capacity at some of these sites where people are most likely to get the infection,” Bratzler said.

He also pointed out the CDC recently changed some of its guidance involving restaurants to note there is COVID-19 spread in outdoor settings, especially when people aren’t spaced out.

“So while I would generally think that outdoor activities are safer, there may be risks of transmission of COVID-19 in restaurants and outdoor seating, particularly if you’re still close together,” Bratzler said.

He asked for people to be kind to contact tracers, as well as do their best to work with them. They are just trying to help Oklahomans and get the state reopened for everyone, he said.

“And make sure everybody’s getting their flu shot,” Bratzler added.

Video: Gov. Stitt outlines guidelines for restaurants and bars

Gallery: COVID-19 questions answered

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Staff Writer

I am a general assignment reporter who predominately writes about public health, public safety and justice reform. I'm in journalism to help make this community, state, country and, ultimately, world a better place.

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