Dreams of a respite from Covid over Christmas were cruelly dashed yesterday, with news of a return to Level 5 restrictions, but there are reasons to be hopeful.
Since restaurants reopened, I have dined out twice. Lunch with a friend, on the terrace of one city centre establishment, was relaxed and enjoyable. A separate dinner, inside a packed and cavernous space, was not a comfortable experience, however.
While the staff wore masks and there was sanitiser on the table, the music was booming – loud enough to rattle to your teeth. The result, of course, was that diners at every table were roaring at each other in an effort to be heard over the deafening music.
Blaring music in restaurants is a severe irritant in normal times.
With Covid swirling through the air, it is a health hazard. Loud conversation increases the number of speech droplets sprayed into the air – not ideal during an airborne pandemic.
One study, from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, found that even normal speaking in “a closed stagnant air environment” resulted in speech droplets remaining in the air for between eight and 14 minutes.
Consequently, it found a “substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments”. Separately, a Japanese study found the odds of catching the virus were nearly 20 times greater inside than outside. Outside, the wind will blow these speech droplets, which can be laden with Covid, away. Inside, they linger on the air and are inhaled by people in the vicinity.
Despite the best will in the world, and the best of intentions, it is very hard for those running restaurants to mitigate this risk. While we have all been scrubbing our hands raw, and disinfecting surfaces liberally, it is now believed that contaminated surfaces play just a minor role in the transmission of the disease.
The main transmission risk is via the air we breathe indoors, particularly in poorly ventilated and crowded spaces. The tragedy for the hospitality industry is that erecting perspex screens, and supplying customers with sanitiser, does very little to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid in their premises.
All it takes is for one customer to have the disease, unbeknownst to themselves, and the restaurant could be the epicentre of a super-spreader event. In the US, earlier this year, restaurants and gyms were the most common super-spreader sites.
One study found that, in Chicago, 10pc of the places people visited accounted for 85pc of the predicted infections. Those places were restaurants, fitness centres and places of worship.
We have had super-spreader events in restaurants in Ireland also. In Cork, in October, 57 cases of Covid were linked to a cafe-restaurant where a number of people from different households socialised.
A deficit in our disease surveillance, which fails to trace the majority of community transmission to its source, means that some people find it difficult to accept that these businesses can be the locus of infections. But, the science is definitive. There isn’t a single epidemiologist, who studies Covid, who has not highlighted the danger of indoor, poorly ventilated and crowded environments.
This does not mean restaurateurs, or those running gastro pubs, are negligent or careless. A minority have breached the guidelines, but most have had sleepless nights trying to figure out ways to serve their customers safely, keep their staff in jobs and salvage their businesses.
The sad reality is that it is very hard to fight an invisible, highly contagious enemy – and almost impossible to do so when that foe is circulating at high levels in the community, as it is now in Ireland. The discovery of a mutant strain of the virus, which can be up to 70pc more transmissible, makes an impossible task even harder. Some studies have suggested that setting an occupancy ceiling of 20pc of maximum capacity could cut infection rates by 80pc, but what business can afford to operate at margins like this for a prolonged period of time?
The danger of indoor transmission doesn’t just apply to restaurants and pubs. It’s also the reason why our Christmas celebrations this year will have to be so muted. Families mingling together in each other’s homes, for prolonged periods of time, could cause infection rates to dramatically surge in the coming weeks.
Other than keeping the number of people we interact with low, reducing the amount of time spent together, wearing masks and keeping windows open, there is little any of us can do to mitigate against the risk. The selflessness of those who are not travelling home, from areas with high Covid infection rates, is the best present they can give their relatives this year. Although there will be empty places around many tables across the country this year, the sacrifice of those people will ensure many lives are saved – and many more Christmases enjoyed, where extended families will be able to celebrate together.
This will be a Christmas like no other, a Christmas none of us will ever want to repeat, but it is important to remember during these dark times that hope is on the horizon. The development and mass production of a vaccine, for a disease no one had heard of less than a year ago, is a true Christmas miracle – one of the most awe-inspiring feats of human ingenuity and science.
The roll-out of the Pfizer vaccine, from next week, will ensure the most vulnerable in our society are soon protected.
Who knows? Maybe, when this is all over, I’ll even enjoy sitting in a crowded restaurant and being deafened by the music.