A couple of recent articles (one mainstream media, one academic) provide interesting perspectives on recent Covid-Related Public Health Orders as well as providing a potential way forward for the hospitality and liquor sectors in terms of limiting Covid transmission during reopening. The first article is from the Washington Post. It describes how a California restaurant is using the latest scientific research on Covid transmission to create a safe dining environment by implementing ventilation and air quality technologies (How One Restaurant's Experiment May Help Diners Breathe Safely - also reprinted here at the SFGate site). The second is an academic study on Covid transmission from MIT (Covid19 Indoor Safety Guidelines - which includes an academic paper, supporting info, and even a web-based app to calculate risk) in which researchers provide fascinating models of Covid transmission risk - again based on ventilation and air quality. 

The articles are 'related' in that they are both premised on the ability of Covid19 to travel via aerosol particles in the air, which makes the virus more easily transmissible. Both also conclude that ventilation, good air quality and mask use are the best ways to restrict transmission risk ... and to make it safe for people to gather again in appropriately ventilated spaces. 

The methodology in the articles provides some interesting context for the current Public Health Orders affecting the liquor industry and hospitality sectors in BC (and other places). For example, if this reasoning is correct, then:

  • Restrictions that make a distinction between indoor and outdoor gatherings would appear to have a scientific basis, except for the fact that they may be over-reaching or under-reaching depending upon how well ventilated the particular space is.
  • Restrictions that make a distinction based upon the time that someone spends within a space would also appear to have some basis, since shorter times would lead to less exposure. 
  • For example, in BC, our current Public Health Orders prohibit all indoor dining and permit patio dining. While basically sound, this would seem to be an overly simplistic approach since some "indoor" spaces are probably as well ventilated, or almost as well ventilated, as outdoor spaces. For example, in the Okanagan, I can immediately think of two restaurants whose "indoor" spaces are extremely well ventilated: anyone who has eaten at the Hooded Merganser in Penticton will know that when the patio doors are open, it is breezy, if not windy, given the restaurant's proximity to (above) the lake. Similarly, the Miradoro restaurant at Tinhorn Creek is perched high above the valley and when the patio doors are open, it is extremely well ventilated. There are similar examples in Vancouver (e.g. Ancora at False Creek) and, no doubt, elsewhere in the province. Indeed, in many places, the ventilation for a guest sitting 'indoors' next to an open window is probably as good as if the guest was sitting 'outdoors'.
  • A new BC "Guideline for Outdoor Dining" document creates a complicated set of rules for qualifying spaces ... which partly reflect the above principles, but which are not precisely focused on ventilation and which could still exclude well ventilated outdoor or indoor spaces (including spaces that were previously ok). I note that the most recent PHO Order on Liquor Serving Premises includes some of these new guidelines. By contrast, I note that new rules for 'open air' dining in WA state are specifically focused on air quality level measurements so they 'follow the science' more closely. 
  • BC's current restrictions on wine tasting pose similar issues. Under the current rules, it is permissible for customers to taste inside if they are standing, but not if they are sitting. They can taste outside either standing or sitting. Given the reasoning above, there may be some justification for the distinction because tasting outside is relatively safe and those customers who are standing inside might spend less time within an indoor space than those who are sitting ... but again the restrictions are probably overly simplistic ... because with indoor spaces, it is the time spent indoors that matters along with the ventilation. The virus does not care whether the customer is sitting or standing.
  • Another relevant factor, which is not mentioned in the articles, is whether or not customers and staff have been vaccinated. This would also obviously affect safety and risks (i.e. indoor seating is for those who have been vaccinated??).

In respect of the above, and more broadly in respect of 'following the science', perhaps the Public Health Orders should be drafted so as to target ventilation and/or time indoors more precisely, rather than relying on categorizations such as 'indoors/outdoors'. The 'science' now seems to point to ventilation and time as the key factors ... if this is correct, then a more focused order might be framed such that outdoor dining or tasting is permissible ... and that indoor dining or tasting can also be permissible if time limits are imposed on customers for remaining inside or if that particular space can be demonstrated to have good air quality and ventilation characteristics. According to these articles, such characteristics are not that difficult to measure ... and relatively simple steps such as mandating that doors and windows are kept open could make a significant difference as to whether or not a space is 'safe'.

Regardless of the above, and for the near future at least, these are very interesting scientific studies. If nothing else, and if only to protect both customers and staff, it would seem wise for all hospitality and liquor businesses to maximize ventilation ... keep the doors and windows open whenever possible!