Bars Are ‘One of the Worst Environments’ for the Spread of Covid-19. Is It Time for Governors to Shut Them Down?

A bartender makes cocktails inside Bar Tonique in New Orleans on July 9, 2020. Two days later, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all bars to close.

A bartender makes cocktails inside Bar Tonique in New Orleans on July 9, 2020. Two days later, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all bars to close. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert


Connecting state and local government leaders

If you go to a bar in a pandemic, you might get more than a cocktail.

As coronavirus cases surge in states across the country, bars have emerged as one of the riskiest environments for the spread of Covid-19. With cramped quarters, a younger customer demographic that may be more likely to be asymptomatic carriers, and free-flowing alcohol that reduces inhibitions, public health experts say that bars are almost designed to be vectors for the coronavirus—and may have to be severely restricted or closed for the foreseeable future.

“I would not go to a bar,” said Julie Swann, a professor at North Carolina State University who advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its H1N1 pandemic response in 2009. “I feel terrible for business owners when I say that, but it is one of the worst environments I can think of for the spread of Covid-19.” 

The things that concern Swann—like the proximity of patrons to each other and their mobility around high-top tables, the lack of masks as customers sip on drinks over a long period of time, and scenarios where people might have to shout over loud music to be heard (which can spread aerosolized virus particles even farther)—could be solved by more limited seating restricted to outdoor patios, she said. But in many states and cities where bars are reopened, business appears to be back to normal with customers packed into indoor spaces. In general, public health experts have cautioned that the risk of coronavirus spread is higher indoors, particularly when people are crowded together, compared to outside. 

Several reopened states, including Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, and Colorado, have had to walk back their rules for bars in recent weeks as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations soar. In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced late last week that he was putting Las Vegas bars back into Phase 1, meaning they are closed to all but curbside pickup. "We know that Covid-19 can easily spread when people are congregating for long periods of time, like inside a bar,'' Sisolak said. "Recently, Dr. Fauci, the U.S.'s top infectious-disease expert, advised that congregating in bars poses a significant risk and is one of the most dangerous things people could do right now. We must heed his advice." 

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom also ordered new statewide restrictions, including shutting down all bars.

In some states that have closed bars, business owners are fighting back with lawsuits and protests. Bar owners in Texas, Arizona, and Florida have filed lawsuits against their governors over new restrictions, calling them unfair and arbitrary. Bar owners have frequently argued that they should not be held to different standards than dine-in restaurants, and if restaurants are allowed to operate with reduced capacity and certain safety precautions, bars should be able to as well. 

“The governor must permit all businesses to operate who can meet those standards,” reads the lawsuit from Arizona bar owners.

In Slate magazine, Jordan Weismann, an economics writer, recently argued that all bars should be closed, but Congress should craft a bailout specifically for them if lawmakers don’t move forward with a larger proposal to help small business owners. For their part, a coalition of small restaurant owners has been lobbying for Congress to pass a financial package to help non-chain restaurants survive restrictions on their business operations.    

There are some other policies that could balance the needs of business owners who are struggling with shutdowns and the concerns of public health experts. One option is to loosen restrictions around take-out services for alcohol, giving bars a new source of revenue. Early in the pandemic, states like New Hampshire, Maryland, and Illinois quickly changed legislation restricting to-go alcohol sales in the hopes that such policies could keep restaurants and bars afloat—though some of these changes only allowed alcohol sales if they were part of an order that included food, which could present a challenge for bars with limited or no kitchen staff.

Another option for states that keep bars open is to strictly limit the number of patrons allowed inside and the spacing between them, as well as requiring a sign-in and sign-out procedure for all patrons, said Swann. If customers were required to leave their name, email address, and phone number along with their “clock-in and clock-out” times, state and local contact tracers would have a much easier time determining who might have been exposed to a positive case of the virus at a bar and encourage them to quarantine.

A system like that would work better than the options for contact tracing in bars now, which often rely on credit card transactions as a record of customers—a process that leaves out parties of multiple people who paid on the same tab and those who paid in cash, Swann said. “It is much easier to contact trace in an isolated environment like a prison or a nursing home,” she said. “Contact tracing in a bar setting is difficult, but with a sign-in and sign-out system, it would be easier to know exactly who was there at the same time as someone who had Covid.”

Such systems have raised privacy concerns and been challenged in court, but some states are pressing forward with sign-in sheet assisted contact tracing. In places where logs are not required and contact tracers are stretched too thin to track down every bar customer who might have been exposed, some local governments are publishing lists of restaurants and bars that have had confirmed coronavirus cases, occasionally prompting uproars from bar owners who say publishing the information will harm their businesses.

As evidence mounts that bars are likely responsible for at least some of the surge in coronavirus cases in new hotspots like Louisiana and Pittsburgh, public health experts are growing louder in their calls for governors to proactively shut down bars even if their state is not seeing a surge, and to seriously reconsider reopening bars in any coming phases if they remain closed.

“The bottom line is that people in an enclosed environment without a mask are breathing other people’s air,” Swann said. “If a location has not reopened bars yet, I would suggest they think very carefully about the role those bars have in their communities, and whether that is worth the risk.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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