Restaurants not at top of El Paso County outbreak sources – KRDO

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) — Indoor restaurant dining remains shut down in El Paso County amid level red restrictions that went into effect on November 27. 

When the level red restrictions were previously announced, some elected officials in El Paso County raised concerns about shutting down indoor dining after health data revealed a much smaller number of COVID-19 outbreaks connected to sit-down restaurants. 

“Restaurants are going to suffer the greatest in this I think in this whole deal and they’re not where the infections are happening,” El Paso County Commission Chair Mark Waller previously told KRDO. 

El Paso County health data collected since March shows contact tracers connected seven outbreaks with 53 confirmed COVID-19 cases to restaurants. That accounts for 3.5% of the total reported outbreaks in El Paso County. Six of those outbreaks were reported in October and November. 

“We’re just not seeing people getting, contracting COVID in restaurants. A lot of the thought is that it’s happening in these gatherings in homes. So, it’s too bad that we’re seeing restaurants suffer for stuff that’s not happening in restaurants,” Waller said. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told KRDO late Monday it is hard to use surveillance and outbreak data to specific exposures. Health officials say to link a case to exposure at a restaurant, the person with COVID-19 needs to remember they ate in a restaurant, that information to be shared with health officials during a contact tracing interview and the restaurant to be the person’s only potential exposure.

State health officials said according to their data only 3.5% of patrons have been connected to the 202 restaurant outbreaks statewide.

“While we expect employees to have more contact with one another than patrons, we believe patrons are underestimated in our outbreak data,” a CDPHE spokesperson said.

State health officials say that indoor activities where people are not wearing masks lead to higher transmission and there is an increased risk for transmission when eating at restaurants indoors with limited ventilation.

El Paso County has reported 195 total outbreaks since the pandemic began connected to 3205 COVID-19 cases and 62 deaths. 

Schools have had more reported outbreaks than anywhere else in El Paso County, according to health data. The second-highest number of outbreaks in the county occurred at businesses such as car dealerships and repair shops, postal offices and veterinarian clinics. Outpatient healthcare facilities like dentist’s offices, eye doctors had the third most reported outbreaks. 

Here’s a breakdown of reported outbreaks by percentage in El Paso County since March: 

  • Schools K-12: 22.05%
  • Other: 8.21%
  • Healthcare – Outpatient: 7.69%
  • Healthcare – Skilled Nursing: 7.18%
  • Healthcare – Assisted Living: 6.67%
  • Retailer: 5.13%
  • Office/Indoor Workspace: 4.62%
  • Child Care Center: 3.59%
  • Restaurant – Sit Down: 3.59%
  • Construction Company/Contractor: 2.56%
  • Healthcare/Rehab Facility: 2.05%
  • Materials Supplier: 2.05%
  • Non-Food Manufacturer/Supplier: 2.05%
  • Religious Facility: 2.05%
  • Grocery Store: 1.54%
  • Healthcare Drug/Alcohol Abuse Treatment (inpatient): 1.54%
  • Hotel/Lodge/Resort: 1.54%
  • Correctional, Other: 1.03%
  • Healthcare – Acute Care Hospital: 1.03%
  • Healthcare – Memory Care: 1.03%
  • Law Enforcement Administration: 1.03%
  • Restaurant – Fast Food: 1.03%
  • School Administration: 1.03%
  • Caterer: .51%College/University: .51%
  • Food Manufacturing/Packaging: .51%
  • Healthcare – Combined Care: .51%
  • Healthcare – Hospice: .51%
  • Home Maintenance Service: .51%
  • Personal Services: .51%
  • Restaurant – Buffet .51%
  • Restaurant – Other .51%
  • Trade School: .51%
  • Youth Sports/Activities: .51% 

On November 11 the El Paso County Health Department said it may not be able to complete contact tracing for all COVID-19 cases due to the county’s rapid increase in cases. The county data shows reported outbreaks after November 11, but it’s unclear how limited contact tracing has been the last month.

“I’m not sure we’re impacting the behaviors we need to be impacting to get this thing turned around. I feel particularly bad for the restaurants. My observations are the restaurants have done a pretty good job living up the prior restrictions, socially distancing people, taking precautions with their staff and all of that sort of thing. And all the sudden now they’re in a level that prohibits indoor dining,” Mayor John Suthers said on November 23.

The El Paso County Public Health Department released a statement to KRDO on Monday, which says in part:

Regarding the question about outbreaks, what is represented on the outbreak page on our website is a snapshot of what is being reflected in the broader community. With the spread of COVID-19 reaching unprecedented levels, the reported outbreaks are only the tip of the iceberg. There are likely other unidentified outbreaks in the community, which can be difficult to pinpoint with disease circulating so widely. We have seen outbreaks across many sectors, industries, and types of settings; again, rather than focusing on one setting, it’s more beneficial to focus on the general risk of an activity.   

We recognize the impact that these restrictions have, and we remain committed to working with partners and the business community to identify innovative solutions. We have been working closely with retail food partners to explore outdoor dining options that will allow restaurants to continue operating through the winter months.  

We know how COVID-19 spreads, and we know what we need to do to slow the spread. The more our community can come together to practice prevention measures such as wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, staying home when sick, washing hands frequently, and limiting gatherings, the sooner we will be able to lower our numbers and become eligible for lower restrictions.