Once again, formerly thriving restaurants are facing widespread lockdown mandates in states including New York and California. And now with a more contagious strain of COVID spreading, we can expect these rules to get worse.

We all want to do what it takes to keep people safe from COVID-19. But where is the science behind shutting down restaurants? Are eateries really the sources of new cases of COVID?

“The hospitalizations continue to increase in New York City. We said that we would watch it. If the hospitalizations didn’t stabilize, we would close indoor dining. It has not. We’re going to close indoor dining on Monday.”
-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Dec. 11 2020

Mostly false or misleading. Significant errors or omissions. Mostly make believe.

While the evidence is limited and mixed, data from New York, Minnesota, and California suggest that restaurants’ role in the epidemic has been exaggerated in at least some parts of the country.

On Dec. 21, 2020, Jacob Sullum at Reason broke it down:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who allowed indoor dining in New York City to resume at the end of September, shut it down again last week. Yet the statewide contact tracing data that Cuomo released on December 11 indicate that restaurants account for a very small share of COVID-19 infections. According to Cuomo’s numbers, which are based on 46,000 cases since September, just 1.4 percent of infections were traced to “restaurants and bars.” That finding is similar to data from Minnesota, where Gov. Tim Walz banned indoor and outdoor dining at a time when 1.7 percent of COVID-19 cases were associated with restaurants.

The percentages reported for retailers, gyms, and “hair & personal care” in New York were even tinier: 0.6 percent, 0.14 percent, and 0.06 percent, respectively. But all of these sources paled in comparison with “household/social gatherings,” which accounted for 74 percent of the cases.

The CDC recommends avoiding “group events, gatherings, or meetings where social distancing of at least 6 feet between people who do not live in the same household cannot be maintained.” Since Covid hit, restaurant owners have worked hard and spent countless dollars making outdoor dining more available and ensuring tables are socially distant.

But now, with both indoor and outdoor dining options limited and shut down in some cases, more people are likely to gather in their own homes, which data suggests is the real source of the spread.

More than 110,000 restaurants have reportedly closed and the industry is experiencing a “free fall.” Before shutting them down, officials should be pressed to reveal the science behind their decisions.