“On a personal level, I’ve gone to many big-box stores properly masked, and I wear a high-quality mask when I go out. I will not eat indoors in a restaurant,” Gottlieb said on “Squawk Box.” “I’ve been eating outdoors since the summertime and wouldn’t eat indoors in a restaurant. I think the risk is too high to be in a confined space without a mask on with other people eating in that same location right now.”
Gottlieb was responding to a question from CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, who asked whether shopping at a store where customers and employees are masked presents equal risk for coronavirus transmission as eating at an indoor restaurant, even one with capacity limits in place. Sorkin’s inquiry followed his heated on-air debate Friday with CNBC bond maven Rick Santelli on the same topic.
Gottlieb, a physician who previously served as the Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Donald Trump, said he believes indoor dining definitely is more risky than shopping at a large retail store. “I think it’s hard to debate that,” Gottlieb said.
While Gottlieb acknowledged it’s possible some restaurants may have “optimized” their set ups to minimize coronavirus transmission risk, he said there are certain characteristics inherent to indoor dining that remain. “People who eat indoors are talking loudly in many cases, and again you’re not wearing a mask. You’re in a confined space. I think there’s no question that’s a higher risk,” he said.
Gottlieb’s comments come as state and local officials across the U.S. are imposing another round of public-health restrictions in response to increasing coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Parts of California, for example, are now under a stay-at-home order after intensive care unit capacity fell below 15%.
The seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in the country is a record-high 196,233, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Hospitalizations for Covid-19 patients are growing in 33 states and Washington D.C., based on a seven-day average, according to CNBC’s analysis of data from COVID Tracking Project, which is run by The Atlantic magazine. Overall, more than 101,000 people are currently hospitalized with Covid-19.
The nation’s outbreak will keep intensifying, Gottlieb warned.
“We need to understand what we’re looking at right now is going to get progressively worse over the next four to six weeks. Infections are going to continue to grow for at least four weeks, and the number of deaths and hospitalizations are going to continue to grow for probably the next six weeks,” Gottlieb said, predicting the nation could see around 150,000 to 175,000 Covid-19 patients hospitalized at the same time.
Those levels would represent an extreme burden to the nation’s health system, he said. “There’s less than a million hospital beds in this country so when you’re talking about 175,000 people hospitalized, we’re going to be well past overflow.”
Gottlieb said the steps taken by governments in the next two weeks can still alter the trajectory of this latest surge of Covid-19. “Whatever we decide to do over the next two weeks, that’s going to affect really how bad this gets. We’re going to be locked in at that point,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday tweeted a strong call to action for people to wear masks, stay at home when possible and social distance to help slow the spread of the virus.
— CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to this report.