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Inslee: High transmission risk at restaurants until we ‘invent a way’ to eat with a mask on

In this March 15, 2020, file photo, a Red Robin restaurant in Tigard, Ore., has closed some tables in order to maintain social distancing between diners. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File)

As Washington hospitals are filling up, and daily averages of new cases and deaths continue to rise statewide, Governor Jay Inslee spoke with KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross this week about the state’s response to the pandemic. Among other topics, Ross asked about COVID transmission at restaurants, pointing out that there’s been pushback from both Republicans and Democrats about the impact the new rules and closures will have on businesses.

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While Gov. Inslee has made it clear before that he does not govern what happens on tribal lands, casinos are open with reduced capacity and other restrictions. According to the Washington Indian Gaming Association website, there have been no major outbreaks linked to tribal casinos in the state. So if they’re open with gaming and dining, Ross asks, why can’t other businesses be trusted to do the same?

“Well, it’s not a matter of trust,” Inslee said. “The vast number of restauranteurs are trying to do the right thing. They’ve worked really hard at bringing hygiene, they’re cleaning their tables, they’re spreading out to the extent humanly possible. So it’s not a matter of trust.”

“It’s just that transmissions are taking place in every dining facility. We know this. This is a scientific fact,” he added.

The governor said it’s not possible to trace every outbreak or case, not only because it’s too many cases but there’s also no way of knowing who was in which restaurant at all times.

“We only do contact tracing for the employees because that’s the only people we really know who are there at that moment,” he said.

When contact tracing has been done, the number one place for outbreaks that are in non health care facilities are restaurants, Inslee explained.

“Now, that’s not a surprise because this is the place that the virus does its dirty work, which is any time we’re close to each other, unmasked, breathing on each other for an hour, hour and a half, and that’s a restaurant,” he said. “It’s also our own dining room tables, and the same thing happens when we have friends over for dinner in our own homes.”

“So this is nothing to knock restaurants,” he added. “It’s just the nature of the environment.”

Gov. Inslee says there are a number of international studies that show that there are transmissions of COVID-19 in restaurants. One famous one, he explains, shows that people who test positive for COVID are twice as likely to have gone to a restaurant.

“As I’ve indicated, of the non health care facilities, the number one place that we have shown outbreaks are restaurants, so we just know it’s a significant transmission risk,” he said. “That is a scientific certainty. And that’s no matter where the restaurants are, no matter where you are dining.”

He knows it’s difficult for restaurants and small businesses right now, which is why he’s hoping $135 million will make an impact.

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“But, by the way, we’ve got to help more than the businesses,” he added. “We’ve got to help the employees of the restaurants, and that’s why we have to find a way to make up for the failure of the federal government to extend unemployment compensation and the pandemic unemployment benefit that run out at the end of this year. That’s why we need Congress to act.”

“And if they do not, we’ve got to figure out a way, in my book, to try to replace some or all of that for these beneficiaries,” he added.

Ross asked if restaurants could get a COVID-19 safety inspection similar to health inspections to say they’re safe to operate since casinos seem to have proved it’s possible to be open safely.

“I do not have the ability and the state of Washington does not have the ability, and the Washington State Legislature does not have the ability, legally, under the U.S. Constitution, to close dining rooms in Indian and tribal reservations,” he said. “… I may do it if I had the power, but I don’t have the power, so … that’s not an option. I can’t do that. Now, tribes could make the decision on their own, but that’s not something I control. So that’s not a legitimate reason to expose people to this pandemic in non-tribal restaurants.”

Just because outbreaks have not been traced in large numbers to restaurants or casinos, Inslee says, does not mean that transmission is not taking place there.

“You’ve heard the term, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? That’s the situation here when you talk to the epidemiologists,” Gov. Inslee said. “It is a scientific fact … that when you sit at a table talking to someone, without a mask, it is a high transmission risk. Every international medical authority that has evaluated it has made that conclusion. I believe it. And it is common sense.”

Inslee added that you cannot make these environments completely safe.

“The restaurants, I want to tip my hat to them, they have made efforts to do a variety of things — clean the tables, spread some of the tables out, employees themselves wearing masks. Those are good things,” he said. “But until they invent a way somebody can eat with a mask on, you can’t eliminate this risk.”

“It’s not their fault,” the governor added. “It’s a reality that we have to take our masks off to eat. That’s what creates the risk. It cannot be avoided, unless you go outside and eat outside, and that is allowed, as is takeout. And I encourage everyone to use takeout as much as humanly possible to support these hard working businesses. That’d be a good thing to do over this weekend.”

Hear an extended version of this interview between KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross and Gov. Inslee on the COVID-19 Seattle podcast here, or by texting COVID to 98973.

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