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Restaurants and Bars Account for 1.4 Percent of COVID-19 Spread in New York, According to Limited State Contact Tracing Data

The data, which draws on just 46,000 voluntary responses to contract tracing data over a three-month period, was released at the same time that Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a ban on indoor dining in NYC

New York Governor Cuomo Holds A Press Briefing In NYC
Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Following multiple calls from restaurant industry trade groups demanding more transparency with the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing data, Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a detailed breakdown during a press conference on Friday about how COVID-19 is spreading throughout the state.

Restaurants and bars accounted for 1.43 percent of COVID-19 cases recorded between September through the end of November, according to data derived from 46,000 voluntary responses to contact tracing surveys in New York. Those cases only account for about 20 percent of the total 210,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases that were recorded in New York during that timeframe. The vast majority of cases either did not know the source of infection or would not disclose, according to New York’s state budget director Robert Mujica.

Earlier in the year, contact tracing in the United States, particularly in New York City, was criticized for being unreliable. Contact tracers cited a range of reasons, from the lag in testing times to failures in contacting participants to its voluntary nature. As Nature noted in its report on the problems that have plagued contact tracing in Europe and U.S.:

In reality, failures occur at every stage of this test–trace–isolate sequence. People get COVID-19 and don’t know it, or delay getting tested. Positive results can take days to be confirmed. Not everyone who tests positive isolates when requested; one survey in May found that in the United Kingdom, 61% of people who were self-isolating said they’d left their house in the past day.

In other words, especially as practiced in New York, where it is voluntary, contract tracing provides an at-best incomplete picture of the spread of COVID-19.

A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report from September indicated that the risk of contracting the virus at restaurants was much higher than places like hair salons or shopping. Yet based on its contact tracing data, the state places the restaurant industry as just the fifth-largest contributor to spreading COVID-19 in the state, following education employees (1.5 percent), higher-education students (2.02 percent), and healthcare delivery (7.81 percent).

The largest contributor to COVID-19 spread in New York, by far, is private household and social gatherings. According to the state, 73.84 percent of COVID-19 cases spread through private gatherings.

During the same press conference in which the COVID-19 spread data was released, Cuomo also announced that indoor dining was banned in NYC starting on Monday.

Even though restaurants were not a large contributor to the uptick in COVID-19 cases in comparison to private gatherings in this data set, Cuomo said that banning indoor dining in the city was “one of the few areas where we think we can actually make a difference” in slowing the spread. Earlier this week, the state disclosed that indoor dining was the fastest-growing source of COVID-19 spread in New York.

The full breakdown of COVID-19 spread data is below:

UPDATE: This story has been updated to more accurately highlight the limits of contact tracing data.