Feb. 15, 2011 — -- It's been exactly thirty years since AIDS -- the acquired immune deficiency syndrome -- was first recognized in the United States. Since then, more than half a million people have died from the disease in this country alone, and more than a million Americans are currently living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
In the early days of the epidemic, little was known about what caused the illness or how it was transmitted, and rumors soon circulated that it could be spread by sneezing, a handshake, kissing or even sharing utensils. Growing public fear led some to call for a quarantine of those diagnosed with the disease. And in 1985, a 13-year-old boy named Ryan White, who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, made headlines when he was banned from attending school. It was just one of many instances of people living with AIDS being stigmatized and ostracized.
Three decades later, we wanted to see if people still misunderstood the disease. Would they feel uneasy if they were near an individual who they knew was carrying the AIDS virus? We decided to find out and brought our hidden cameras to the Colonial Diner in Lyndhurst, N.J.
In our first scene, our hired actress playing the waitress engages in conversation with another actor, who is playing a customer who happens to be HIV positive. It's only partly an act: the actor, Daniel Logan, is HIV positive in real life.
In conversation, Daniel reveals to the waitress that he is HIV positive. Vince, another actor hired by "WWYD" to play a customer, seated at the next stool at the counter, is alarmed.
"You have AIDS?" Vince asks.
"No. That's different, it's HIV," Daniel replies. Vince then gets up from his seat and moves away from Daniel. Reactions like this were not uncommon 30 years ago. So how will it play today?
Customer Joe Smith comforts Daniel and encourages him to ignore our rude actor, saying, "Don't talk to him. It doesn't pay. He doesn't understand."
Man Agrees That AIDS Might Be Spread Like Common Cold
But another customer seems to agree with our hypochondriac actor, Vince, who argues that the disease could be spread the same way a common cold or flu is: by sneezing or coughing.
"He's right in a way," the customer tells Vince. "Think about it. If I get the flu and I sneeze on you, you're going to get the flu," and he wonders if HIV is spread the same way.
He is not the only one who's not sure how HIV is spread. A recent nationwide study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than a quarter of adults still believe the virus can be transmitted simply by sharing a drinking glass. This, despite decades of scientific evidence that shows that HIV is primarily spread through infected blood.
That lack of awareness doesn't surprise our actor, Daniel, who says he's heard it all.
"Growing up in Long Island in the suburbs," says Daniel, "you hear, you know, ignorance like that all the time. I mean there's some people out there that either refuse to accept it and learn about it more," he says.
Back at the diner, as soon as our waitress, Traci, tries handing Vince the same menu Daniel was holding, Vince starts hurling inappropriate comments. This time, the restaurant is all ears.
"C'mon he touched it," Vince complains. "I don't want it."
"You think you can get this from something I touched?" Daniel asks.
"I'm just telling you I don't want to take any chances," Vince says.
But not everyone feels the way our actor, Vince, does. In fact, fellow diner Kelly Rivera not only consoles Daniel, she invites him to sit and have lunch with her and her neighbor. Later, she tells John Quinones, "I thought he was being treated really badly, and nobody should be treated like that. That's terrible. "
In another scene, we have our female actress play the role of the anxious diner to see how people will react. As she informs other diners sitting nearby that Daniel has AIDS, they seem more irritated with her.
Traci asks, "Nobody has a problem with this?"
"No one has a problem with this!" customer Rick Gimello responds.
"You should just leave," adds customer Janis Mitchell.
When we caught up with Rick Gimello later to get his thoughts, he tells Quinones, "This is 2011. You know? The world ought to be educated enough to know what's going on."
Yet, despite strong evidence that the virus cannot be spread by touch, tears, sweat or saliva, a recent survey shows that more than half of adults questioned say they'd be uncomfortable having their food prepared by someone who is HIV positive.
With that in mind, we wonder: what will happen when our HIV-positive actor is the waiter?
Watch the scenario unfold Friday, 9 p.m. ET on "What Would You Do?"