COVID-19 rarely if ever spreads through surfaces — yet ketchup bottles remain banned from WA restaurants

Walk into the Elk today, and you won't be asked to put on a mask.

Last month, Washington state's mask rules changed to say that vaccinated people don't have to wear masks in most indoors settings and businesses don't have to ask their customers to prove they're vaccinated. Elk manager Marshall Powell took down the mask-mandate signs as a result.

"We're not going to enforce something that's not enforceable," he says.

It varies across the city: In some Spokane restaurants, you'll find signs requiring everyone to wear masks; in others you won't. But there's one thing you won't find at any law-abiding Washington state restaurant right now: ketchup bottles.

Ketchup bottles — and soy sauce bottles, for that matter — are still banned from restaurants under Washington state rules written back when scientists assumed COVID-19 could be easily spread by touching contaminated surfaces.

Any table condiments, the state rules say, must be single-use only and must be removed and discarded between each seating. Similarly, restaurants have to offer hand sanitizer for customers and must either use disposable menus or disinfect them after each use.

Similarly, indoor entertainment venues have to sanitize microphones between singers, disinfect door knobs and pool tables, and provide sanitation wipes for customers to use vending machines.

And yet, today, the scientific consensus is clear: COVID-19 spreads through droplets and the airborne aerosols but rarely, if ever, spreads via surfaces.

Yet while the state has repeatedly altered the rules for restaurants — allowing alcohol to be served and increasing the allowable table size — the rules about hand sanitizers, menus and ketchup bottles have remained.

The evidence against surface-to-surface spread isn't new. Over a year ago, the CDC was saying that the surfaces weren't "thought to be the main way the virus spreads." Last summer, the Atlantic decried disinfectant regimens as "hygiene theater." In February, Nature published an editorial arguing that implying surface transmission was a big risk that had "serious implications."

"People and organizations continue to prioritize costly disinfection efforts, when they could be putting more resources into emphasizing the importance of masks, and investigating measures to improve ventilation," the Nature editorial argued.

By April, the CDC was even more explicit about the low chance of surface spread, noting that the chance of contracting COVID by touching a contaminated surface was less than 1 in 10,000. (Another study suggested that while handwashing could further reduce that low risk, disinfecting didn't do much.)

"This is a virus you get by breathing," Rutgers University microbiologist Emanuel Goldman told the New York Times. "It's not a virus you get by touching."

But Lacy Fahrenbach, Washington state's deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response, says that since surface transmission was still possible, the CDC guidance and Washington state's rules around things like menus and ketchup bottles had remained the same.

"There have been a few reports of COVID-19 cases potentially caused by surface-to-surface transmission," she says.

While she wasn't aware of any specific examples of those cases in Washington state, she stressed how challenging it was to figure out exactly how each case was contracted.

"It's difficult to prove definitively, and that's in part because the respiratory transmission route can't be ruled out," she says.

Washington state has tracked 374 outbreaks in restaurants since COVID began, more than other non-health-care business settings.

For the most part, restaurants have focused their lobbying efforts on restrictions around capacity, not menus or disinfectant. While Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Hospitality Association, says, "We're all looking forward to getting back to using ketchup bottles and mustard bottles," restaurant owners have found other regulations almost advantageous.

The new menu regulations, for example, gave businesses an excuse to switch to digital QR code menus that were a lot easier to update in real time.

And health department rules around cleaning surfaces fit easily into the workflow of establishments that already had a slew of surface-cleaning practices. After all, even if COVID doesn't spread through contaminated surfaces, other pathogens do.

"Whenever someone leaves that table, we're disinfecting that whole area," says Adam Hegsted, owner of a number of local restaurants like the Yards Bruncheon and Baba. "'Better safe than sorry' is part of our motto."

By June 30, all state COVID regulations, including those on restaurants, may be lifted. In the meantime, Fahrenbach says that the state is assessing its food worker and establishment policies in response to changing scientific policies.

But some restaurant owners are seeking stability and clarity more than another incremental policy change.

"The state regulations have been so inconsistent and constantly changing, it's been tough to keep track of what's going on," says Powell.

And even after state COVID rules disappear, Anton says, some restaurants may keep following some of them, if only to ease the fears of customers nervous to venture back into indoor dining.

"Part of hospitality is making your guests comfortable," Anton says. "Part of that is removing the things that they might worry about even when they don't have to."

In other words, even if some food-safety practices are "hygiene theater," what is food service if not a kind of theatrical performance? ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...