Mixed reaction from experts to new guidelines on dining out

Professor Kingston Mills says ‘no science at all behind” 105 minute limit

‘Bottom line is that outdoor dining is much less risky,” says Professor Kingston Mills. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

‘Bottom line is that outdoor dining is much less risky,” says Professor Kingston Mills. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Experts are divided on the merits of new guidelines designed to implement safe indoor and outdoor dining from next month.

The Fáilte Ireland strategy unveiled this week addresses maximum numbers of people, spacing of tables and reservations, as well as the need for ventilation.

However, they have been described variously has having either no basis in logic, or offering basic safety.

Under the guidelines, indoor dining, once available, will require reservations and 105 minute time caps for tables set up one metre apart.

Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology at Trinity College Dublin said there was “no science at all behind” the 105 minute limit at tables.

“In fact you are increasing the risk if you bring in another group of people afterwards,” he said.

He also said there was “nothing magic” about one or two metre table distances - while proximity was certainly an important factor, a sneeze in an enclosed space could carry virus for several metres.

Prof Mills visited restaurants last summer when Covid numbers were low and felt staff were dealing with the restrictions competently but said the “bottom line is that outdoor dining where at all possible is to be encouraged because that’s much less risky.”

However, Prof Sam McConkey of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland said the time limit was not as arbitrary as it looks. Comparing the number to speed limits on roads, he said a certain cut off had to be put in place in the best efforts of public safety.

“The Government and Fáilte Ireland are trying to balance on the one hand keeping us safe from the coronavirus and on the other hand trying to open up business that have been really struggling,” he said. “Nobody wants these businesses to go to the wall.”

For Prof McConkey, the greater concern and priority ought to be around preventing the importation of a potentially dangerous variant that can bypass current vaccines. Therefore a slow, cautious reopening of domestic life is important.

University College Dublin immunologist Dr Gerald Barry noted that anyone sharing the same space as someone else for over two hours is considered a close contact and so this might have fed into the decision making around the one hour, 45 minute time decision.

However, he said all of these measures were somewhat arbitrary even if they are ultimately designed to reduce risk.

“To an extent it’s a time thing; the more vaccinated people we have the less chance there is of having someone [with Covid-19] in a restaurant,” he said, noting asymptomatic spreaders of the disease in particular.

Dr Barry welcomed guidelines on indoor ventilation however, saying the science showed that good air movement was far more important in mitigation than Perspex screens or hand sanitiser.

Being one metre away from someone reduces your chance of contracting the virus by 85 per cent, he said, and by an additional 50 per cent for every metre after that. But the simple measure of opening windows and creating a slight draft would make a major difference.

Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy in UCD, Orla Hegarty, said the Fáilte Ireland guidelines did not sufficiently address the risks of dining in public.

“Outdoors is not no risk, you still have a close range risk if people are meeting outdoors and when people are indoors without masks for an extended period of time it’s very high risk of super spread, we still have a lot of virus in the community,” she told RTÉ radio on Thursday.

Dr Hegarty also criticised the guidelines for not including “practical steps about the particular risk of things like those air conditioning units that just chill the air and recirculate it. They have been connected with outbreaks in Asia and people have been infected who were six metres away from another guest in a restaurant.”