Europe Keeps Schools Open, Not Restaurants. The U.S. Has Other Ideas.

Science increasingly suggests classrooms can be kept open safely. But dining rooms pose a different problem.

Students arriving for the first day of in-person classes at Junior High School 157 in Queens.
Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Across much of Europe, even as coronavirus cases rise anew, governments are keeping classrooms open while forcing restaurants and bars to shut their doors. But in some American cities, officials have opted to keep students home even as dining rooms bustle with customers.

Facing a second wave of the virus, New York City stands on the precipice of once again closing its classrooms. But with restaurants still serving customers in the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration faces a now-familiar conundrum: As the virus gains ground, should dining rooms be shuttered before classrooms?

The question reflects the complicated calculus that the pandemic has foisted onto cities all over the world, asking officials to balance livelihoods against lives, and to weigh the survival of today’s economy against the education of a generation of children.

There are no simple trade-offs, and it is possible that both schools and indoor dining will close in the coming days or weeks. For now, though, the city appears headed toward a discordant new status quo, asking hundreds of thousands of children to learn in front of their laptops even as New Yorkers are still making indoor dinner reservations.

New York City’s children face weeks or months without any in-person instruction if the city’s positivity rate reaches 3 percent over a seven-day rolling average. The city could hit that threshold in just a matter of days.

But while educating children is plainly more essential than eating indoors, the sacrifice involved with shuttering restaurants is not suffered primarily by diners. New York’s restaurant industry, which employs many low-income New Yorkers of color, risks financial collapse without federal stimulus dollars. Thousands of jobs are at stake, as is a major lifeblood of the city.

While Mr. de Blasio has said that it is time to reassess indoor dining, only Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has the power to shut it down. The state this week began to roll back dining, asking restaurants and bars to close at 10 p.m. starting Friday. It is also weighing more restrictions.

For New York, the looming decisions come just six weeks after dining rooms and classrooms reopened on the same day in September. And the considerations span science and politics, affecting millions of New Yorkers in ways that are both obvious and incalculable.

A mounting body of evidence from across the globe indicates that elementary schools in particular are not the superspreader sites they were once feared to be, though the science is more muddled for older children.

Schools have so far been a bright spot for New York. Only .17 percent of tests conducted in over 2,800 schools over the last month came back positive.

Several prominent public health experts have come forward in recent weeks to say they are now more confident that schools can reopen safely, as long as they implement strict safety measures and community transmission remains relatively low.

“I would not put schools high on the list of things driving community transmission that need to stop right now,” said Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at the CUNY School of Public Health.

Meanwhile, the evidence that indoor dining is a high-risk activity has been steadily growing. Restaurants, gyms, cafes and other crowded indoor venues likely accounted for some eight in 10 new infections in the early months of the U.S. coronavirus epidemic, according to a new analysis that used cellphone mobility data from 10 U.S. cities from March to May.

Credit...Desiree Rios for The New York Times

“Restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels,” in terms of new infections, said Jure Leskovec, a computer scientist at Stanford University and senior author of the new report, in a conference call with reporters.

This is in line with a Centers for Disease Control report from September that found people who tested positive for the virus were twice as likely to say they had eaten at a restaurant as people with negative test results. No other activity the researchers asked about was linked to as many cases.

“I think there is scientific and medical agreement that the priority has to be schools opening,” said Lindsey Leininger, a public health researcher at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “Indoor dining is risky. I cannot say that more forcefully.”

Tom Bené, the chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, disagreed, saying that restaurants that carefully follow public health guidelines can be safe. “Not only do we feel that it can be done safely, it is being done safely,” he said.

Much is at stake for New York City and its 1.1 million public schoolchildren as virus numbers surge.

Over the summer, Mr. de Blasio said the entire school system would shutter if the average positivity rate hit 3 percent — a signal to nervous parents, educators and the teachers’ union that the city was taking school safety seriously.

At the time, the average positivity rate was hovering around 1 percent, and the 3 percent threshold seemed far away. But on Thursday, the average positivity rate reached 2.6 percent.

Mr. de Blasio also said over the summer that the city would re-evaluate indoor dining if the positivity rate hit 2 percent. The city has already exceeded that threshold — but not yet taken action.

The mayor also reiterated Thursday that indoor dining should be reassessed, but said he was primarily concerned about people tightening up their behavior in response to the virus.

“Whether there’s indoor dining or not is not the central question,” Mr. de Blasio said. “The central question: Is everyone doing the maximum we can all do to fight back this disease?”

If schools close, all students would be learning remotely indefinitely, though Mr. de Blasio said Thursday he believes closures would be temporary and, hopefully, brief.

That would be a major shift for the roughly 300,000 students who have attended at least some in-person classes so far — particularly pre-K students and children with disabilities, some of whom are in classrooms five days a week. A group of parents has started a petition calling on the mayor to keep schools open.

But the vast majority of city students — roughly 700,000 — have been learning at home full time since March, because their parents have so far decided not to send them back to classrooms.

Mass school closures would be a clear sign that the city is in the midst of a dangerous second wave of the virus and that New Yorkers should change their behavior. But it would be perhaps the most significant setback yet for the city’s recovery, and could prevent many thousands of parents from returning to work.

Research indicates that extended closures have serious consequences for children’s academic progress, and for their mental health. A recent study out of Britain showed that children had lost basic skills and regressed in school during the pandemic.

Public schools in many large American cities have remained online-only, even as restaurants have been permitted to operate with capacity restrictions. Now that the virus is resurging, cities such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle are considering restricting restaurants further, rather than banning indoor dining entirely — even as schools remain shut.

Cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have all closed classrooms while allowing restaurants to seat customers.

In many European countries, keeping schools open, with safety precautions, has been a political and social priority, even as governments have recently moved to restrict public life, including by shutting down restaurants and bars in France and Germany, and enforcing evening lockdowns in Italy and Spain.

New lockdown measures in the United Kingdom also shutter pubs and restaurants but allow children to attend school. There, as in much of Europe, the governments are helping to support the wages of those in industries who must close.

Teachers’ and administrators’ unions in Europe have expressed concern about safety in schools, but by and large, government decisions to prioritize school openings have held the day.

The restaurant industry before the pandemic employed 12 million people nationally, and about two million of them remain out of work, according to the National Restaurant Association, an industry group.

Even after restaurants were permitted to reopen, capacity restrictions have left many struggling to survive. Without a robust federal bailout package, many restaurant and bar owners have warned that they will have to shutter permanently, particularly if they have to further limit operations.

A federal relief plan, such as the Restaurants Act, would help restaurants and bars stay afloat by establishing a $120 billion grant program. But it has stalled in Congress, and states, including New York, say they are too cash strapped to provide restaurants with support they would need to get them through an extended shutdown.

The widespread collapse of the industry would have ramifications for everything from employment to tax revenues.

“Any call for limiting restaurant operations must be coupled with a call to provide stimulus, otherwise they are not going to be around when it’s OK for them to reopen,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of New York City Hospitality Alliance.

Kate Taylor, Melissa Eddy, Michael Gold and Benedict Carey contributed reporting.