These were not anti-mask COVID-19 deniers; people were clearly following the official rules. Nearly everyone on the street wore a mask, including the diners as soon as they exited their restaurant of choice. A man watching TV from the bar inside a Thai place had a mask on. So did the women walking down the street talking about their pharmacy-school applications.
Still, lots of people were eating indoors, even though it was a balmy, 66-degree night in early November. Unless you’re extremely plugged into the public-health world, there’s little reason you would pause before eating inside. Many of the places I passed had signs outside announcing We’re Open! Like 44 other states as of this writing, Virginia hadn’t banned eating indoors, even though the day after my interviews there were 14 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in Fairfax County and 17 in Arlington. That’s well over the 10-per-100,000 measure that Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me recently was her ceiling for socializing indoors with friends and family only.
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Outside McCormick & Schmick’s, a chain seafood place, I stopped three men who had just had a business dinner together. They refused to give me their full names, so I’ll identify them by the color of their masks.
These three seemed relatively unconcerned about the virus. One of them, Red Mask, said he was still going to the gym; Blue Mask said he had gone to the barber recently and was impressed with how long his hairdresser spent wiping down his chair. (This is largely for show; surfaces are now thought to be less important to the spread of the virus than aerosols and droplets from other people). Black Mask told me that he was willing to go into any open restaurant. “I’m not in a high-risk category, so if I got it, it wouldn’t bother me that much,” he reasoned.
They asked me, somewhat aggressively, if I would eat inside a restaurant. I said I probably would not. And then of course I sounded weird, because why wouldn’t you eat in a place that’s open?
Each of us, to get through this terrible time, has clung to some coronavirus factoid or another that we believe protects us. Here’s mine: The odds of catching the coronavirus are about 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. This year I have eaten on patios, in backyards, and on benches outside. But I haven’t sat down inside a restaurant since March, and probably won’t for many more months. “Indoor eating and bars and coffee shops are among the riskiest activities you can do. Outdoors is dramatically better,” says Alex Huffman, an aerosols researcher at the University of Denver.
Several of the restaurant patrons I talked with didn’t share this belief. One man, Steve Harris, even suggested that he was taking a bigger risk talking with me outdoors, with a mask on, than he was eating indoors, without a mask. (Our conversation was much less risky, but I felt awful nonetheless.) Think about when you’re standing on a back patio at a friend’s house, he said, just having a couple of beers, and the sun is setting. You can see peoples’ spit glimmer as it flies out of their mouth into the twilight air. Disgusting, right? Probably more disgusting than having a Blue Creek cheeseburger at Ted’s Montana Grill in November 2020. (Except that indoors, these speech droplets stay in the air for eight to 14 minutes. Not everyone would know this, because Donald Trump and his coronavirus advisers constantly spread incorrect information about the virus.)