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Sunday, May 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Dinner with a side of contact tracing

Spokane County isn’t allowed to reopen more businesses and services right now, but the State Department of Health likely will give its blessing soon. When it does, restaurants will be at the center of some of the toughest decisions. Restauranteurs, government officials and diners must all compromise so that the state can keep fighting COVID-19 spread.

Only eight rural counties received permission to enter Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Plan. Spokane County’s higher population took it out of the running. Maybe next week. If not, things are looking good for many businesses, including restaurants, to reopen on June 1.

Whenever it happens, restaurants will need to comply with more than a dozen new rules to minimize risk for diners and staff. Things like limiting capacity to 50%, having workers wear masks, keeping parties to five or fewer and separating parties by at least 6 feet, and forbidding buffets and salad bars are obvious safety measures.

Some restaurants might choose to remain closed if they think they’ll lose money with the limited capacity and additional health safety costs. Continuing with carryout only, which is less staff-intensive, might work for some.

Diners, too, must decide whether to eat out. There will be some risk. Preliminary research has found that the virus can spread on air currents in enclosed spaces like restaurants with HVAC systems. Diners, then, would do well to wear a mask except when actually putting food and drink in their mouth.

Where the most friction might occur, however, is around contact tracing. Other nations have demonstrated that keeping track of when and where people might have been exposed to the virus via contact tracing is a valuable means of containing it. Washington restaurants therefore will be required to record the names, phone numbers, email addresses and arrival times of all diners.

That small loss of privacy might rub libertarians the wrong way, but it really shouldn’t. Tracking such minimal personal information is neither burdensome nor invasive, especially in the context of fighting a pandemic. People share as much information when they make a reservation.

One asymptomatic carrier of the virus can expose many people to the virus in a day. If that carrier later tests positive, contact tracing allows officials to notify others with whom the carrier was in close proximity that they, too, should get tested or self-quarantine for a while. Such quick action helps curb the spread.

If public health isn’t convincing, personal health should be. If you go out to a restaurant or bar for an hour or two, wouldn’t you want to know that you might have been exposed? Sharing contact information will enable health officials to get in touch if necessary.

Many details remain to be worked out. The governor’s team is working with restaurant owners to develop clear rules about how best to collect and secure the contact data. They should be sure to invite civil liberties experts to the table, too, so that privacy remains a priority. Limited retention periods for the data, confidentiality from the state unless an exposure incident occurs and forbidding using data for marketing all seem like reasonable compromises that could put diners’ minds at ease and clarify what exactly restaurants must do.

Restaurants would do well to treat their customers with respect and not abuse the personal information they collect. They might be tempted to use every marketing option they can while attempting to recover and survive, but customers deserve better. A simple solution might be an “opt-in for marketing and discounts” checkbox on a card people complete with their information.

The risk in the absence of such safeguards and limitations is that people will lie because they don’t trust the state or the business to handle their contact information with care. If a bunch of diners are Jenny Doe at 555-867-5309 and anon@ymous.net, the contact tracing system will break down.

People are itching to reopen local businesses, but Washington must not rush into it without taking reasonable precautions. The COVID-19 danger isn’t over. It’s entering another phase that will continue to require public cooperation for the health of everyone.

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