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LA Times baselessly ties drop in COVID-19 to outdoor dining ban

It’s been two weeks since California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the state’s stay-at-home order, allowing restaurants to open for limited outdoor dining after shuttering on December 5 (November 25 for those in Los Angeles County). 

The Los Angeles Times has acknowledged that  the outdoor dining ban was “controversial” [1] and asked whether the ban helped “slow the COVID-19 surge.” But the Times was so fervent in its support of the ban that it failed to determine whether the numbers dropped as a result of the ban or for other reasons.

As put by the Los Angeles Times:

After weeks of overwhelmed hospitals and record death tolls, the improvements seemed sudden and surprising. But experts say they are the consequence of changes that Californians started to make two months ago.

The number of cases in the state remains higher than when the stay-at-home orders were put in place, leaving some scratching their heads [2] as to why the change of heart now. The Times includes data from Los Angeles County that showed “R”—the average number of people one sick person can infect—was 1.2 prior to the Democratic governor’s COVID-19 restrictions. By January, it was 0.85, according to the Times. 

Data analyst Matt Shapiro said on Twitter [3] that other states without such restrictions have similar graphs of rising and falling case numbers. 

Now. Did the stay at home order work? Or did the surge just happen and then stop happening because all surges eventually stop happening?” he asked.

He points to Iowa as an example of an open state whose surge after a month, without stay-at-home measures or dining bans, began to drop.

“We could do this for almost every single state. Almost every state had a surge that lasted about the same length regardless of mitigations,” @PoliMath wrote. 

 

The LA Times reported that “scientists say that they can’t tease out which part of the order was most effective in turning the tide, but several leading public health experts interviewed by The Times agreed that the outdoor dining ban probably played a key role.” The article insinuates that without such measures, the state could have suffered a higher death rate. 

New York City, which imposed often-changing restrictions on the restaurant industry, has allowed outdoor dining for customers brave enough to bear winter weather. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last week that NYC restaurants could serve indoors [7] at 25% capacity beginning Valentine’s Day (restaurants in the rest of the state are open at 50%). 

Contact tracing data from New York made headlines in December when it showed 1.4% of COVID-19 spread [8] could be traced to the restaurant industry. A state official countered [9] that contact tracing has not been effective at “trac[ing] the origins of a vast majority of positive cases” and thus this percentage is likely “incorrect.” In Los Angeles County, reports equated COVID-19 transmission originating at restaurants [10] to 4%. 

Infectious disease experts have said that there is not data linking outdoor dining [11] to COVID-19 spread. Outdoor spread of COVID-19 has been described as “rare but not impossible.” [12] A modeling study based [13] on New York City data and weather conditions conversely find that the virus is “easily transmitted in ideal outdoor conditions.”