Austin’s most recent Stay Home – Work Safe Order encourages local restaurants to help enforce contact tracing by keeping a log of customers’ names, dates and contact information. In a recent interview, Austin Mayor Steve Adler expressed his fervent support of this policy:
“If you are going to go into a restaurant, wouldn’t you want to know if someone who was in that restaurant at the same time the next day turned out to have the virus?… We are going to ask, I would think, restaurants to log their people—just to keep a record, they don’t have to turn it over to the government, just keep a record of who is in that place at what time.”
A simple and effective solution, right? Wrong.
It’s highly unlikely that forcing small businesses to keep a log of customers’ personal information would be an effective strategy, given the unique nature of this novel coronavirus and the difficulty restaurants would have in overcoming privacy concerns. The reticence of most Americans to participate in, or comply with, this type of government-mandated surveillance will hamper its effectiveness. The enforcement of this policy would also be a significant privacy concern.
The Texas Restaurant Association expressed its concerns over the plan in a letter, explaining that Adler’s recommendation targets small businesses unfairly. Businesses with an occupancy limit greater than 75 wouldn’t be required to keep track of their customers. The TRA also noted a distinct possibility that this requirement will actively drive away business; customers could either refuse to comply when asked to provide their information, provide fake names or simply not bother coming back.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton condemned the latest order as Orwellian in a letter to Judge Eckhart and Mayor Adler. Paxton asserts that the order forces restaurants into submission by threatening to release the names of restaurants who do not comply, raises privacy concerns and, “is likely superseded by the governor’s order, insofar as the orders restrict essential services.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is facing heat for announcing a similar plan requiring businesses to keep a log of customers’ information. Privacy experts, and many Americans, are suspicious that these types of policies can lead to abuses without the proper safeguards in place.
Austin’s latest order addresses these privacy concerns briefly, stating that these logs will only be maintained for one month, shall be the property of the business, not the city, and may be used only by public health authorities if needed for contact tracing. How exactly these loose privacy guidelines will be enforced at every small business remains to be seen.
There is an inherent dichotomy between privacy and effective contact tracing, however.The more the proposed policies focus on protecting an individual’s data, the less chance we have of seeing reduced infection rates.Effective contact tracing is invasive, as it relies on building a database of personal data. In turn, this raises major concerns about government surveillance.
The nature of this virus also poses a unique challenge to contact tracing. This virus isn’t the bubonic plague; it’s not visible to the naked eye and restaurant patrons might be infectious before they even show symptoms. Many people never show symptoms at all or have only mild signs that might seem more like seasonal allergies or a mild cold.
We now know that asymptomatic people help facilitate the spread of this disease in most communities and are unlikely to visit their doctor, so those cases go unreported. Requiring small restaurants to keep logs of their customers’ personal information will not address that issue.
Epidemiologists claim that tracking down every contact, reinforcing behaviors that break the virus transmission cycle, and increasing testing capacity and availability are the most valuable tools for prevention of further increases in COVID-19 cases. We should focus our efforts on increased testing instead of implementing ineffective regulations that threaten to further squeeze the life out of already suffering small businesses.
It’s imperative that Mayor Adler and the Austin City Council make it easier—not harder—for small restaurants and mom-and-pop shops to succeed. They are part of the very fabric of Austin, and now more than ever, they need something more than good intentions.