While Pumpkin Spice Lattes are officially back in the U.S. and Canada today for the 17th year in a row, a Starbucks in South Korea has been making headlines for a very different reason. To date, at least 66 COVID-19 cases have been linked to a single Starbucks branch in Paju, a city north of Seoul, including secondary and tertiary infections. According to South Korean news reports, most customers weren’t wearing masks inside the store. But none of the four employees working at the time — all of whom were wearing masks — have tested positive.
It may be surprising that close to 70 people may have caught the coronavirus from a single Starbucks, but health officials suspect that the ceiling-mounted air conditioning inside the store contributed to the rapid airborne spread. The Starbucks infections have been traced to a woman who sat on the second floor of the Paju branch on August 8th for around two hours. South Korean news also reports that the employees were wearing KF-94 masks, which are almost as effective as N95 masks.
Coffee shops have repeatedly been a source of infection during South Korea’s recent surge of COVID-19 cases, speaking to the nation’s attachment to taking a coffee break. Seoul boasts more coffee shops per capita than either Seattle or San Francisco, and its per capita coffee consumption is almost three times the world average. In order to curb the spread of cases, Starbucks in Korea is reducing seating capacity by at least 30% and is asking customers to use their mobile ordering system. The Paju Starbucks remains closed for the time being.
The fact that the employees of the Paju Starbucks were uninfected is a testament to how effective masks can be, even when those around you aren’t wearing them. Though South Korea is undergoing a surge in new infections now, with most of them linked to a megachurch, the country’s ability to contain its first wave of cases back in March has in part been attributed to the widespread adoption of face masks, as well as quick testing and rigorous contact tracing. The country has currently imposed Level 2 COVID-19 safety rules, which includes closures of certain businesses like bars, nightclubs, buffets, and gyms. It also restricts indoor gatherings of more than 50 people. The Starbucks spread shows how contagious the coronavirus can be, especially in indoor spaces and especially without a mask. It’s also a good reminder to get your coffee to go for the time being.