COVID-19: Why Eating at a Colorado Restaurant Is Just "Reasonably" Safe

Photo by Mark Antonation
At a May 26 press conference about COVID-19 developments, Governor Jared Polis talked about on-premises dining at Colorado restaurants resuming under tight restrictions the next day, May 27. But rather than enthusiastically encouraging people to rush out and take advantage of this opportunity, Polis stopped well short of characterizing such activities as risk-free.

Because Colorado needs to have "a thriving, dynamic restaurant industry," Polis said he advocated for on-site dining "ahead of many states" rather than following the suggestions of those who recommended that closures remain in place for another month or more because "for our state, it's a matter of survival. But we want to do it in as safe a way as possible by having these thoughtful guidelines in place." The result is an activity that "is reasonably safe. Not as safe as in January or February or staying at home — but if it's a choice you want to make, with these rules we've made it reasonably safe."

"Reasonably," the adverb Polis used not once but twice in these remarks, is not an especially reassuring term when it comes to matters of health — and it's also exceedingly vague. So we reached out to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to see if staffers there could quantify what "reasonably" means in the context of eating at a restaurant.

For example, is on-premises dining under the new rules 70 percent safe, assuming that the restaurant in question strictly follows all of the CDPHE's counsel? Eighty percent safe? Ninety percent? Or, perhaps, is dining inside a restaurant 70 percent safe, while dining outside — an option that Polis has actively encouraged — 90 percent safe?

In its reply, the CDPHE declined to apply a specific measure to "reasonably," as used by Polis.

"We can't assign percentages to this," says CDPHE spokesperson Ian Dickson, corresponding via email. "There are too many variables, and every situation is different."

Dickson adds, "Our restaurant guidance was developed to ensure that Coloradans could dine out as safely as possible. COVID-19 is still present in Colorado, though, so the safest actions are always the ones that involve the fewest interactions with people who are not part of your household."

This answer highlights the tension between health and the economy when it comes to the novel coronavirus. Public-health officials know that dining at a restaurant is more dangerous than eating at home no matter what safety rules are instituted. But given the number of people employed in the food-service industry (Polis estimated the total at approximately 300,000, representing around 10 percent of Colorado's workforce), continuing to ban on-site dining for the foreseeable future was politically and economically untenable. The restaurant reopenings, then, are a compromise, one that attempts to kick-start an important fiscal force without causing COVID-19 illnesses and deaths to spike again.

Dickson is much less ambiguous regarding restaurant visits by those most at risk of infection. "We strongly advise older Coloradans and members of other vulnerable populations to remain at home as much as possible," he says. "The safest thing, for everyone, is to minimize your exposure to others, so delivery and pick-up are safer than dining in."