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Restrictions and guidelines to stem the spread of the coronavirus can certainly help, but they are not a failsafe against contracting the virus.
The coronavirus is determined to infect, and it will do so even if you are more than six feet away from an infected person in a restaurant and spend no more than five minutes within their vicinity. The troubling news comes from a South Korean study published last week. The Los Angeles Times reported how the study began:
When a high school senior in Jeonju tested positive for the virus on June 17, epidemiologists were stumped because the city hadn’t had a coronavirus case in two months. North Jeolla province, where Jeonju is located, hadn’t had one for a month. The girl hadn’t traveled out of the region in recent weeks and had largely gone from home to school and back.
Contact tracers turned to the country’s Epidemic Investigation Support System, a digital platform introduced in South Korea amid the pandemic that allows investigators to access cellphone location information and credit card data of infected individuals in as little as 10 minutes.
Cellphone GPS data revealed that the student had briefly overlapped with another known coronavirus patient from a different city and province altogether, a door-to-door saleswoman who had visited Jeonju. Their connection was a first-floor restaurant on the afternoon of June 12 — for just five minutes.
Aside from the extreme privacy intrusion that the contact tracers went through to determine where the high-school student contracted the virus, the study shows that even taking precautions against contracting the coronavirus won’t necessarily keep you from getting it. As the Times reported, CCTV recordings showed the student and the infected businesswoman “never spoke, or touched any surfaces in common — door handles, cups or cutlery,” but that the student must have contracted the virus because of the air conditioning in the restaurant.
But not all diners contracted the virus. Those who were not sitting directly along the airflow or who had their backs to the flow did not contract the virus.
The main conclusions of the study were that eating indoor at restaurants was riskier than previously imagined.
“Eating indoors at a restaurant is one of the riskiest things you can do in a pandemic,” Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who studies virus transmission in the air, told the Times. “Even if there is distancing, as this shows and other studies show, the distancing is not enough.”
The restaurant where the student contracted the virus had no windows or a ventilation system, allowing a relatively light air conditioning flow to carry the virus to other patrons. As the Times reported, the measured air velocity in the restaurant was “the equivalent of a blowing fan.”
South Korea has had 40,098 total coronavirus cases and 564 deaths for a population of 51.2 million people, meaning it has fared better than many countries when it comes to the virus, though many factors make its handling of the pandemic difficult to replicate.