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Contact Tracers Aren’t Asking COVID-19-Positive Oregonians If They’ve Visited Restaurants

Oregon Health Authority senior health advisor Ann Thomas said the state doesn’t have the time nor contact tracers available to track potential restaurant or bar spread

Re-opening Continues Across Densely Populated New York And New Jersey Areas
Customers dine in a restaurant
Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

In almost all Oregon counties, on-site dining is allowed in some form: Restaurants can open their indoor dining rooms with socially distanced tables, or begin serving customers outside on patios. However, with more than 20,000 total cases, Oregon isn’t out of the woods with COVID-19. And the role Oregon restaurants and bars play in the spread of COVID-19 is unclear, mostly because — according to a senior health advisor at the Oregon Health Authority — contact tracers aren’t asking Oregonians which restaurants they’ve visited, if any.

In an OPB story, OHA advisor Ann Thomas says that the state’s overworked contact tracers aren’t asking about restaurants or bars during case interviews, partially because of the already lengthy interview process. “We can’t ask every little thing that you and I think of or would like to know,” Thomas told the NPR affiliate. “We don’t ask if you were in a bar or restaurant.”

The spread of COVID-19 at bars and restaurants, however, is more than hypothetical; many states across the country have attributed specific outbreaks and resurgences of COVID-19 cases to dining at restaurants at bars. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott attributed a June surge in cases to 20-somethings “going to bars,” and in Louisiana, “health officials tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars,” according to the New York Times.

When the employees of a restaurant contract COVID-19 and it spreads within the workplace, the Oregon Health Authority will include that restaurant in its weekly report; for instance, there are 14 cases traced to a McDonald’s in Umatilla County. However, OPB reports that the Oregon Health Authority does not notify the patrons of restaurants with workplace outbreaks. “We just don’t have the manpower,” Oregon state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger told OPB. “But that certainly doesn’t mean there’s been transmission in those settings.”

Then again, getting clear lists of patrons at a restaurant or bar at a given time is difficult in Oregon; unlike states like Washington, Oregon bar and restaurant owners don’t need to keep a list of patrons for contact tracing measures. Most Oregon restaurants and bars remain open for dine-in service, excluding Umatilla County.

Oregon health officials are adamant that there is no indication of significant spread traced back to restaurants or bars. “What happens is, you find out that two people who work together in a bar had COVID. But they probably got it from their roommates,” Thomas told OPB. “We aren’t seeing a week later that you have 20 patrons who got it.”

Is indoor dining safe? Oregon’s data can’t say [OPB]
Is It Safe to Eat at Restaurants Yet? [E]
OHA COVID-19 News [Official]
All Eyes on Bars as Virus Surges and Americans Go Drinking [NYT]
Oregon COVID-19 status [JHU]
Oregon Phase One restaurant guidance [OHA]

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