Restaurant noise

High noise levels are dangerous for more than your ears

Photo credit: Eden, Janine and Jim licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I have written about high ambient noise levels as a disability rights issue for those with auditory disorders, and I’ve also noted that ambient noise levels in restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause hearing loss. A fascinating article by in The Atlantic also suggests that high ambient noise levels are a risk factor for COVID-19 transmission.

interviewed Muge Cervik, a lecturer in infectious disease at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a co-author of an extensive review of Covid-19 transmission conditions, who noted that what makes controlling COVID different from controlling an influenza outbreak is that transmission is more random–a few people infect a lot of others, in clusters of infection, while most infected people don’t infect anyone else. And loud talking is a risk factor for super-spreading of COVID-19. writes that Cervik told her that:

In study after study, we see that super-spreading clusters of COVID-19 almost overwhelmingly occur in poorly ventilated, indoor environments where many people congregate over time—weddings, churches, choirs, gyms, funerals, restaurants, and such—especially when there is loud talking or singing without masks. For super-spreading events to occur, multiple things have to be happening at the same time, and the risk is not equal in every setting and activity….

If ambient noise levels exceed about 75 A-weighted decibels*, people have to talk more loudly to be heard.  And often they may move closer together than the usual 3-4 foot social distance to a more intimate 1-2 foot distance. Of course, 3-4 feet is already less than the 6 foot safe social distance recommended for reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The Noise Curmudgeon, a Canadian blogger who writes about noise, noted that Toronto offered the following guidance for bars and restaurants:

It is advised to keep the volume of music, either live or recorded, at a reasonable level-one that does not cause customers to raise their voices or shout, thereby possibly increasing the risk of transmitting the virus.

He went on to write:

And there you have it – turn that background music down so I don’t risk spreading or getting the corona virus! Now we have clear permission make the request without feeling like we are messing up other peoples’ background music. Perhaps if this virus continues for very long, low or no background music will become the “new normal”!! Yay!!!

We couldn’t agree more.

Because if a restaurant or bar sounds loud, it’s too loud, and your hearing is at risk.

And now, high ambient noise levels in restaurants and bars are a risk factor for COVID-19 transmission, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Restaurant noise still a problem even during covid lockdown

Photo credit: Daniel Case licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in the Cape Gazette, covering Delaware’s Cape region, notes that even during the COVID-19 lockdown, restaurant noise is still a problem. Food writer Bob Yesbek says he has written about restaurant noise before but this article was sparked by a flurry of emails complaining about restaurant noise after he wrote about new restaurants opening up in spite of increasingly prolonged restrictions on indoor dining.

As Yesbek notes–and as was covered in Acoustics Today last year–restaurant noise and its perception are complex issues. The good news is that techniques such as sound absorption, diffusion, and masking can make restaurant dining more pleasant.

Why does sound management matter? Because we don’t just go to a restaurant to eat. We can do that at home. We dine out, usually with family or friends, to celebrate special occasions or to socialize, and being able to carry on a conversation without straining to speak or to be heard is an important part of the enjoyment.

And these days, ambient noise levels in restaurants and bars matter even more. Talking loudly and being closer than 6 feet from others to allow conversation over high ambient noise levels helps spread the coronavirus, and that can have deadly consequences.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

On balancing outdoor dining and neighborhood peace

Photo credit: Eden, Janine and Jim licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Recognizing the difficulties restaurants have faced during this horrific pandemic, New York City has provided increased outside dining spaces for these restaurants. Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that “[t]he success of our neighborhood establishments is central to our entire city’s success.” Acknowledging that complaints will follow these outdoor dining activities, however, he set up an office to deal with potential complaints. This office entitled Mediating Establishment and Neighbor Disputes (MEND NYC) will be overseen by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

Undoubtedly, one of the complaints that will be brought to MEND NYC will center on the intrusions of loud sounds from these outdoor eating establishments on nearby apartments and homes. It is hoped that nearby neighbors and restaurant owners will be able, with the assistance of MEND NYC, to participate in a mediation process that will resolve complaints. While noise has been a major complaint in New York City, we need to understand that at this time with an overall increase in stress in our city’s residents, there may be less tolerance of nearby noises intruding in their lives.

Thus, I have to raise several questions at this time. Will MEND NYC have someone on its staff familiar with the noise issue in New York City? Will that person know that citizens calling 311 in the past have reported that their noise complaints have not led to satisfying resolutions? The 2018 noise report produced by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli supports these concerns raised by callers to 311.

Noise impacts on an individual’s mental and physical health and well-being and its impacts are exacerbated during a time of added stress. Will there be a psychologist on the staff of MEND NYC who has the appropriate background to assist mediators as they work with individuals who are being adversely affected by noise? Restaurant owners are under much stress financially and they too would benefit from the experience of a psychologist.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is an agency that deals with noise complaints. Will someone from the DEP be part of MEND NYC? Will MEND NYC provide data, easily accessible to New Yorkers, that will give them some idea of how successful its mediation program has been? Data reflecting success will give New Yorkers greater confidence in the program.

The goals of MEND NYC should be applauded. My questions about the program are being raised to facilitate the attainment of these goals.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Avoid noisy restaurants during the pandemic

Photo credit: Kate Trifo from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As readers of this site know, I am an advocate for quieter restaurants. The sound levels in many restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause auditory damage.

Noisy restaurants are also a disability rights issue for those with hearing loss and other auditory disorders.

Now there’s yet another reason to avoid noisy restaurants during the COVID-19 epidemic–if the ambient noise is loud enough to require one to speak more loudly than usual to be heard, coronavirus is more likely to be shed into the air.

And when it’s noisy, people consciously or unconsciously get closer together to converse. If the ambient noise is above 75 decibels or so, it’s difficult to converse even at a 3-foot distance, and certainly not possible at the safe 6-foot social distance recommended by the White House and public health authorities.

So please stay safe. As COVID-19 lockdowns are lifted, avoid noisy restaurants. if you dine out. And as Teddy Roosevelt might have said, “[s]peak softly and wear a big mask.”

Thanks to my longtime friend Minka Goldstein for bringing this topic to my attention.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

AARP on hidden hearing loss

Photo credit: Ken Lund licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece from the AARP discusses hidden hearing loss, although it really discusses the “speech-in-noise” problem. The speech-in-noise problem has been known for decades. Namely, people, usually in mid-life or older, complain that they can’t understand speech in a noisy environment, typically a restaurant, but their hearing tests are normal.

Recent research suggests that these people suffer from what is now called hidden hearing loss. Hidden hearing loss is an inability to process speech in noisy environments. It is called “hidden” because standard hearing tests (pure tone audiometry) are normal, but more sophisticated testing used only in research settings finds abnormal processing of complex sounds. The likely cause of hidden hearing loss is damage to the nerve endings in the inner ear, called cochlear synaptopathy. This scientific article discusses the problem in greater detail.

To me, there are two takeaway lessons from the AARP piece. The first is that the speech-in-noise problem is very common in older people.

The second is that this piece is a call to action. AARP advises us to seek out quieter settings, sit in a restaurant booth, or put the noise behind us and the speaker in front of us.

But the piece assumes that noisy restaurants are an inevitable part of life.

I would advise AARP members to ask the manager to turn down the amplified music. If they refuse, walk out or threaten to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And on your way out, tell management that the restaurant is too noisy and you refuse to eat there.  Make sure to note the restaurant’s indifference to your comfort and hearing health in a detailed review on social media, and let your city council representative know about the problem, too.

Restaurant patrons used to have to dine accompanied by unwanted secondhand cigarette smoke. When secondhand smoke was found to be a Class A carcinogen with no known safe level of exposure, we were able to get smoking banned. We have a right to dine without endangering our health.

Noise is also a health hazard, to our hearing and our cardiovascular health. Just as we are entitled to smoke-free restaurants, we have a right to quieter restaurants, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Does loud noise in pubs affect customers?

Photo credit: Daxis licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Silencity has noted the importance of the Soundprint app in identifying restaurants that are too noisy as well as those that are quieter. The popularity of the Soundprint app  speaks to the fact that there are many people who wish to enjoy their food and conversation with their fellow diners in less noisy restaurants. Now, we learn that an organization in the United Kingdom, called Mumbli, is certifying “venues on their quality of sound.

This campaign to make London “sound better” has already measured sound levels in 300 venues and has identified those venues where “…you can have a conversation with a balance of good atmosphere and well-being.” The organization plans to rate 1,000 more venues in 2020 and extend their operation beyond London to across the UK.

What I found particularly interesting about Alice Leader’s article linked above is that she noted a study by the charity Action on Hearing Loss that eight out of ten people have cut their visits to pubs, restaurants, and cafes because of noise. Furthermore, the heading of the article “Loud noise forces 80% of customers to leave a pub” causes one to rethink that it is only those people who are interested in “fine dining” that are advocating for a “lower decibel level” in dining establishments. For those of you less familiar with the word “pub,” the more common American word is “bar.” Ms. Leader’s article also clearly links background noise to impaired hearing, well-being and productivity.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

 

Sarasota restaurants are getting louder, too

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Restaurant noise is a major problem for diners, now being the leading complaint in the latest Zagat restaurant survey. And this article from Sarasota Magazine says it’s a problem there, too.

The writer makes the common error citing the 85 decibel occupational noise exposure limit as the sound level at which auditory damage begins, noting restaurant noise levels of 92 decibels at one popular restaurant. Eighty-five decibels is not a safe noise level to prevent hearing loss.

The World Health Organization recommends only one hour of exposure at 85 A-weighted decibels* to prevent hearing loss. And a typical restaurant meal lasts 90-120 minutes, depending on the speed of the service, the dining choices, and whether one lingers beforehand over drinks or afterwards for coffee and dessert. So all diners at the restaurant were at risk of hearing loss.

Is this a real problem? Yes! In 2017 the CDC reported that 24% of American adults had noise-induced hearing loss, most without significant occupational noise exposure.

Choosing a quieter restaurant, as an economist friend suggested, isn’t a realistic option. In most cities, there are few if any quiet restaurants, and a less noisy one is the only option if one wants to eat a restaurant meal.

It’s clear that restaurant noise is an example of market failure, and that regulator action is needed to protect diners’ auditory health.

*A-weighting adjusts sound measurements to reflect the frequencies heard in human speech.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

A tech solution to restaurant noise?

Photo credit: Quark Studio from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This informative piece by writer Chris Berdik discusses the problem of restaurant noise and a new technological solution to it, the Constellation audio system. The Constellation system uses microphones, speakers, and computer processing to tune a restaurant’s sound environment to sound quieter. A lot of sound absorbing material must be installed to make the room acoustically “dead” before the Constellation system is installed.

As discussed in this article in Acoustics Today, getting the acoustics right in a restaurant can be a challenge. Diners want to be able to converse with those at their table, but want enough ambient noise to provide speech privacy for their conversations–and they don’t want to hear the conversations at neighboring tables. They want some sound, so the restaurant isn’t as quiet as a tomb, but not too much. And the acoustic characteristics of the restaurant change, both in terms of noise production and sound absorption, as the restaurant goes from half empty to chock-a-block full.

The developers of the Constellation system are trying to bring the price down. It’s currently $60-80,000, which is a lot of money. If restaurateurs want to make their restaurants more inviting for patrons, they will find the funds to make the space comfortable and inviting.

Of course, one of the first principles of acoustics is that the easiest way to make a space quieter is to reduce the noise at its source. And the cheapest and easiest way to reduce restaurant noise costs nothing: turn down the volume of the amplified background music, which often is turned up to rock concert levels!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Dining without the din

Photo credit: Julia Kuzenkov from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

After The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote in favor of restaurant noise on January 22, at least in part a response to a blog post I had sent him a month earlier that he referred to in his fourth paragraph, I heard from a number of my noise contacts around the country.

Mr. Wells didn’t mention my name, but the language he quoted was so familiar to those who know my thoughts about restaurant noise that most of the emails asked, “Dan, was that you?”

Of course it was.

One of my noise contacts suggested writing a letter to the editor. I hadn’t done that because in these days of impeachment trials and global warming and coronavirus, why would a newspaper print a letter about restaurant noise?

But with his encouragement, I did.

My letter didn’t get printed, but this one from former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel did.

It turns out that Mr. Frankel was the one who suggested that food critics write about restaurant noise many years ago.

And Mr. Frankel said exactly what I wanted to say, only so much better!

The headline the Times provided for the letter, “Dining Without the Din,” is a phrase that I will use in the future.

In four words, it captures exactly what I, and most of those commenting on Mr. Wells’ column, want.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Is restaurant noise a problem?

Photo credit: James Palinsad licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Is restaurant noise a problem? I think so, and I’m not the only one who does. According to the Zagat surveys over the last several years, noise is the first or second most common complaint of restaurant patrons. Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema also thinks restaurant noise is a problem, and give decibel readings and comments about noise in his reviews.

But New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, responding to a blog post that I had sent him doesn’t think so.

I may be making a mistake in writing this–there’s an old adage that one shouldn’t argue with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton–but I feel compelled to reply.

Wells’ argument, in a nutshell, is that he really doesn’t think restaurant noise is a problem and generally likes louder restaurants. Wells says that he doesn’t have trouble conversing in a noisy restaurant, and thinks restaurant noise is a sign of people having a good time.  Wells opines that people prefer livelier restaurants and are uncomfortable with silence. In the end, he thinks the problem may be that restaurants may be the only place in modern life where we can’t control the noise, and that bothers people. But he believes restaurant noise is a feature, not a bug, and restaurant noise is the happy sound of people having a good time sharing a meal with each other.

I disagree, of course. I live in Los Angeles, not New York, so it’s possible that there are differences between the coasts, but I don’t think so. I think restaurant noise is a problem and prefer quieter restaurants where I can talk with my dining companions. Unfortunately, they are almost impossible to find. I have tinnitus and hyperacusis, so loud restaurants are downright painful for me. Restaurants are noisy by design, whether the culprit is an open kitchens, hard surfaces, or tables crowded together in a low-ceilinged room, often accompanied by background music turned up to rock concert levels. Yes, noise can create a sense of action or excitement. and hospitality literature shows that restaurant noise increases food and drink sales and turnover. But Zagat surveys show that many diners find restaurant noise to be a problem. I think many patrons would prefer quieter restaurants. And no, it’s not a control issue, it’s a comfort issue. We don’t want silence, we want enough quiet so we can enjoy the food and the conversation without damaging our hearing.

I usually don’t read the online comments to newspaper articles, but a few of my noise contacts suggested that I look at the comments to Wells’ piece. I’m glad I did. On Thursday morning there were over 876 comments and the overwhelming percentage–approximately 95%–agreeed with me that restaurant noise is a problem. Several commenters raised the same concerns.  Namely, that restaurant noise is a problem for those with hearing loss, especially older people, whether they wear hearing aids or not, restaurants don’t have to be as noisy as they are, European restaurants are much quieter, and going to a restaurant for a meal is about the food and conversation. Others stated that they walk out of noisy restaurants or won’t return to them, and many were aware that noise is used deliberately to reduce time spent at the table and to increase alcohol sales.

Mr. Wells column is titled “Is Restaurant Noise A Crime? Our Critic Mounts a Ringing Defense.” No, restaurant noise is not a crime, but restaurant noise is a major disability rights issue for those with hearing loss and other auditory and non-auditory disorders. If enough of us would complain to elected officials about restaurant noise and quiet restaurant laws are passed–or if a sympathetic plaintiff finds a good disability rights lawyer–restaurant noise could soon be a violation of the law. And for the sake of everyone’s dining comfort and auditory health, I hope that day is very soon.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.