Bars become new flashpoint in COVID-19 fight

Public health experts and some Trump administration officials are pressuring reluctant governors to close down bars as their states suffer new surges of COVID-19.

Bars are seen as one of the largest sources spreading the virus in states, given that they tend to crowd people together indoors, speaking at loud volumes without masks for extended periods of time.

Some hard-hit states, including Florida and Arizona, have taken action to close them, but many others have not, even as outbreaks worsen and the country sets new daily records. 

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There are 11 states in what the Harvard Global Health Institute deems the “red zone,” meaning they have more than 25 new cases per 100,000 people per day. 

But in six of those 11 hardest-hit states, governors have not ordered bars to close: South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Idaho. 

A private White House document, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, also called on local authorities to close bars and gyms in red zone counties. 

“We know early action, from evidence from around the world, makes a difference,” said Cyrus Shahpar, director of the Prevent Epidemics Team at Resolve to Save Lives, saying some governors are being “late” and “reactive.”

Closing bars is “one of the first things you would want to kind of eliminate as a risk factor if you're losing a handle on the situation,” he said.

But some governors in states with large outbreaks are resisting new restrictions. Not only are some not closing bars, some governors are also resisting statewide mask mandates, which are seen as less economically damaging than closing down businesses.

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has gone so far as to sue the city of Atlanta for seeking to impose a mask order and what the city called voluntary guidance imposing business restrictions like closing indoor dining in restaurants. 

Kemp said at a press conference Friday that there is already a 35 percent occupancy limit on bars, which he said was enough. 

More broadly, he said, in response to a question about mask mandates: “Government is not going to be the answer to all people's problems.” 

“I have grave concerns about our young people and other people getting so reliant on the government that we lose what the basis of this country was founded on, and that's freedom and liberty,” he added. 

The lack of action from some states as cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise across much of the country is alarming public health experts. 

Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, wrote on Twitter this week that states in red zones should not only impose mask orders and close bars, but also close shopping at nonessential retail and ban indoor dining at restaurants.   

“I'm more worried about the US outbreak than at any point since early March,” tweeted Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “We're on a similarly devastating trajectory, minus the political will to do something about it. That's a catastrophic situation.”

Trump administration health officials are also calling for bars to be closed, even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE himself has not been pressuring governors. 

“Now we have very, very good models that in the hot areas, these red zones that have high cases, high percentages increasing, it's very, very important to really close indoor bars,” Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters on a call Thursday. 

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: CDC reverses controversial testing guidance | Billions more could be needed for vaccine distribution | Study examines danger of in-flight COVID-19 transmission Trump claims enough COVID-19 vaccines will be ready for every American by April Gates says travel ban made COVID-19 worse in US MORE, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, made a similar case speaking to The Atlantic this week. 

“States that are in trouble right now, if those states pause and say, ‘OK, we’re going to do it right, everyone wear a mask, bars closed, no congregating in crowds, keep your distance, protect the vulnerable’ — if we do that for a few weeks in a row, I’ll guarantee you those numbers will come down,” Fauci said. 

Another reason to close bars, experts say, is that it can help lower transmission levels enough to be able to open schools safely in the fall. 

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) closed indoor service in bars in most of the state earlier this month, citing in part the effect on schools. “If we want to be in a strong position to reopen schools for in-person classroom instruction this fall, then we need to take aggressive action right now to ensure we don’t wipe out all the progress we have made,” she said in a statement.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said Wednesday that when White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx met with him this week, she raised the idea of closing bars, in addition to praising the mask mandate the state has in place in certain counties.

“The one other thing that she mentioned that we've got a lot of work, we've got some conversations to have, is bars,” Reeves said. 

“Particularly young people who are going to bars and hanging out all night for whatever reason they tend to veer away from wearing masks while in bars and veer away from socially distancing,” he said. “And that is not a good recipe for success.”