Experts respond to alleged COVID-19 infections in Berkeley businesses

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Although recent allegations of employees at local businesses contracting COVID-19 are concerning, three UC Berkeley public health professors say customers should be safe as long as proper public health measures are taken.

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In recent weeks, Berkeley residents have been alarmed by reports of alleged employee COVID-19 infections at Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods and other local businesses.

Three public health experts agreed that while the alleged infections are worrying, they do not yet pose a significant threat to indoor shoppers.

“As long as customers are wearing a mask and staying more than six feet away from employees (who should also be wearing masks), they should be safe,” said UC Berkeley public health professor John Swartzberg in an email.

Swartzberg added that among employees wearing masks, asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 pose an especially low risk to customers. Businesses that experience outbreaks of COVID-19 among multiple employees, however, should close, Swartzberg said.

UC Berkeley public health professor Arthur Reingold seconded Swartzberg’s assessment of indoor transmission, adding that stores with infected employees should communicate with Berkeley’s Public Health Division to decide appropriate cleaning procedures and whether to close.

“Transmission is mostly a risk with prolonged indoor contact, and much less likely with brief customer-employee encounters,” Reingold said. “There might be a better case to be made about possible transmission to other employees who interact frequently in the store.”

UC Berkeley public health professor Malcolm Potts stressed the importance of following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines in order to prevent COVID-19’s spread. Potts also believes that Alameda County and the Berkeley Public Health Division should follow California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s guidance regarding business closures.

On July 13, the California public health officer issued a statewide order to close bars, indoor dining and all indoor operations of places of worship. The city of Berkeley complied by suspending indoor worship services.

All three experts agreed that Berkeley residents should try to limit the frequency of shopping excursions and spend as little time in such situations as possible.

According to the Berkeley Public Health Division’s COVID-19 guidance for businesses, the department is regularly notified of all citywide COVID-19 cases and provides guidelines to ensure employee and customer safety at local businesses.

“If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, The City of Berkeley Public Health will provide assistance in the assessment of potential worksite exposures, and recommended testing, quarantine, or isolation instructions,” the guidance states.

Contact Mattias Hoz at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @hozmattias.