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Environment & Science

SU Indoor Air Expert Still Leary Of COVID Risk In Restaurants

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John Smith
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WAER File Photo

More Central New Yorkers might be looking to head back to their favorite bar or restaurant this holiday weekend, now that COVID-19 vaccination rates are increasing and capacity restrictions have eased. But an indoor air expert is still advising caution, especially for the unvaccinated. 

Physics professor Eric Schiff is interim director of the New York State Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems at SU.  He’d still prefer capacity restrictions.

"My own recommendation would be a 50 percent capacity reduction.  So, the risk is a little higher in restaurants than I'm comfortable with if you're unvaccinated.  If you're vaccinated, the personal risk is much, much better, so I wouldn't sweat it too much."

Schiff says understanding how the virus spreads is key to knowing the risk.  He likens it to the old days of smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants.

"The non-smoking section was a joke.  You could smell the smoke just as well there just as anywhre else.  Actually, the virus spread is very similiar to cigarette smoke spreading.  I looked that up and checked it.  What you could see by the smoke-filled room still applies to the invisible virus.  It's kind of everywhere."

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Credit Screenshot
This is a screenshot from the research brief.

That’s where indoor air quality comes in.  Schiff wrote a reserach brief where he tried to establish quantitative criteria for when restaurants should have capacity reductions compared to the level of community spread, taking into account ventilation.  Some restaurants spent thousands of dollars to improve ventilation and filtration, but the state didn’t give them any advantages.  He says the difference between average systems and the best is a factor of 10, the same as getting vaccinated.  Schiff would like to see more standardized consideration of ventilation systems.   

"So, you could rapidly adapt to a new disease and permit restaurants and bars to reopen faster or close down slower, and also deterime in a fair way what capacity limits should be."     

He says eventually, the county’s annual inspections could include testing a system’s ability to handle airborne viruses, from COVID to the flu, plus a certificate on the door indicating safe ventilation levels.