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Restaurants And Bars Top List Of COVID-19 Exposure Locations In Sangamon County

Masks on statues of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in downtown Springfield
Mike Smith
NPR Illinois 91.9 FM
Masks on statues of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in downtown Springfield

On the same day local enforcement began of COVID-19 mitigations aimed at bars and restaurants, the Sangamon County Department of Public Health released contact tracing data Friday showing where people who tested positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts had been the two weeks prior to the positive test.

Restaurants and bars top the list, followed by office settings and medical clinics or hospitals. People with COVID-19 or their close contacts also frequently listed travel, a workplace other than office, school or a business.

The new data sheds more light on the debate over closing indoor service at bars and restaurants, but also comes with limitations. Meanwhile, local economic experts and restaurant owners shared their perspectives on the effects of the new mitigations at a webinar hosted by the University of Illinois Springfield Friday.

Gov. JB Pritzker imposed the restrictions two weeks ago as the west-central Illinois region saw a spike in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19. Local officials at first bucked the order – allowing the businesses to continue indoor service with additional rules. But last week, they reversed the decision as cases continued to mount.

SDPH Demographics

Exposure Data

The 1,059 locations logged represent answers from more than 750 people who participated in contact tracing since July, according to a county spokesperson. Contact tracers can enter more than one location for each case.

Bars and restaurants made up 17.6% of responses to questions about where a person with COVID-19 or their contacts had been two weeks before the positive test. Office settings accounted for 12%, followed by hospitals or clinics at 10.6%. Travel and workplace other than an office were each around 7% of answers, and schools and businesses 5.2%. A full list is here (PDF).

Dr. Vidya Sundareshan – co-chair of infectious disease at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and an advisor to the county health department – said the exposure data only reflects contact tracing for a fraction of recent cases.

Since July, more than 6,000 Sangamon County residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

“It's kind of hard to say definitively, especially when you do have a big chunk that doesn't have any area of exposure, that that is what is the top cause,” Sundareshan said. “But from what we have, yes, it's clear that (bars and restaurants are) one of the top causes.”

The accuracy of the data depends on the accuracy of the information people with COVID-19 and their contacts give to contact tracers. The county also switched software systems in September to use Salesforce, which the Illinois Department of Public Health is asking all health departments to use.

Sundareshan said the uniformity of the software, where contact tracers have a drop-down menu of options of exposure locations, could make the information more accurate.

Some elected officials and business owners who have argued against restrictions have said that there have been very few outbreaks traced back to bars and restaurants. Further, owners said they’ve followed all guidelines and in some cases gone beyond recommendations to try to protect customers and employees.

Sundareshan emphasized that showing there is an outbreak – defined as five or more cases that are proven to have originated at the same place during the same timeframe – is much more difficult than gathering exposure data, and not always feasible.

She also said that even with restaurants and bars following the guidelines, customers have to remove their masks to eat or drink, which increases risk of spreading the virus.

"Logistically speaking, the risk of transmission is definitely higher because just by the nature of the location you're not able to adhere to all the public health guidelines," Sundareshan said. 

Understanding what potential exposure locations come up frequently along with statewide data and national studies on transmission can all help determine what should be done about the spread of COVID-19.

And doing something to curb the spread is especially important now, Sundareshan said, with the transmission rates as high as they are. Sangamon County reached a 21% positivity rate of COVID-19 tests on Tuesday, according to IDPH. Its average rate is 16.7%.

“We cannot do nothing with the percentage positivity that high and the strain that’s palpable with the healthcare workforce and contact tracing efforts,” Sundareshan said.

The county exposure data also mirrors statewide and regional numbers published by IDPH.

Businesses Adapting, But Tough Time Ahead

Nicolas Paz, owner of Azteca – a restaurant and food truck serving Mexican food – said when he was forced to close indoor service in March, he tried not to worry about the financial hurt, but focus on what they could do, feed people.

Paz made the comments at a UIS webinar entitled “Predicting the Cost of the Pandemic on the Economy & Recent Restrictions on Local Businesses.”

Paz said they offered take-out, set up a pay-it-forward promotion, and moved their food truck to where people were in need. He got their message out on social media and communicated that no matter what, his restaurant would be there.

“If I have 10 and you have zero, then we both have five,” he said. “So I think that's why Springfield has been so great and responded to our business in a way they have.”

Now, with the latest shutdown of indoor service, he said he’s continuing with the same attitude and hoping it allows them to continue to thrive.

Still, there are tough economic times ahead for the hospitality industry.

Ryan McCrady, president of the Springfield Sangamon County Growth Alliance, an economic development corporation, said recent mitigations could lead to a loss of more than 800 hospitality industry jobs and $20 million in lost wages now through the end of next March.

But there are some caveats.

“This model is also not forecasting any additional stimulus or any additional unemployment funding that could become available,” he said.

The economic model – which uses data from Jobs EQ – doesn’t take into account those laid off employees going out and getting other jobs. McCrady said he isn’t trying to make an argument for or against mitigations, but the models are meant to inform about the mitigations’ possible impact.

Ken Kriz, a professor of Public administration at the University of Illinois Springfield, presented similarly concerning data. He said the Springfield area could take an $11 million hit. He said that could grow to more than $45 million if the mitigations are in place longer than four to six months.

“As it gets longer and longer, and there's more of that, then you have the follow on, what we call the ripple effects that go through other industries like real estate and other sectors,” he said.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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