Governors rethink opening bars, restaurants amid spike in COVID-19 cases

State and local officials are facing pressure to keep bars and indoor dining closed as the U.S. reckons with another upswing in COVID-19 infections weeks after lockdown measures were lifted. 

Indoor venues where people eat, drink and socialize have become sources of COVID-19 spread in several states where cases are rising, forcing leaders to reevaluate their decisions to allow bars and indoor restaurants to reopen during a pandemic. Meanwhile, governors who have not yet allowed those facilities to reopen said they will reconsider their plans to do so. 

“I think across all these states, we just can’t have bars — I’m not sure that we can even run restaurants where people are sitting indoors, nightclubs. Anything that gathers people indoors I think at this moment is way too risky and has to be dialed back,” said Ashish Jha, professor of global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, on NBC’s “Today” on Monday.

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The U.S. is facing an upswing of COVID-19 cases, especially among young adults in the South and West, that threatens to overwhelm hospitals in some states. 

Experts have pinned the rise in cases to states that reopened too early without having adequate testing or contact tracing to quickly spot new outbreaks and people not following social distancing measures, such as staying six feet away from others and wearing masks in public. 

Governors in Texas, Florida and California, where new cases are increasing rapidly, have mandated bar closures in recent days, and other governors are likely weighing whether they will do the same. 

On Monday evening, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced that bars, nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters and water parks will close for 30 days due to the state's spike in COVID-19 cases. 

Bars and indoor restaurants still remain open in much of the country, including in other states seeing rises in cases, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Nevada and most counties in Pennsylvania. 

Indoor areas where people congregate, such as nursing homes and prisons, have been hot spots for infection since the early days of the pandemic. Now that states are reopening and people are leaving their homes, other indoor establishments, including bars, restaurants and nightclubs, are becoming sources of infection, especially if people don’t wear masks or follow social distancing measures.

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“Indoor mass gathering sites are going to be problematic for the entirety of the pandemic,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“With packed indoor bars, people not wearing masks standing next to each other for extended periods of time, and it’s loud so they’re talking loudly — that’s a great way to spread the virus, unfortunately,” she added. 

While many states require that bars and other indoor establishments follow social distancing rules to prevent crowding, they are not always followed by patrons, and COVID-19 cases have been tied to establishments in several states.  

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) expressed regret over the weekend for allowing bars to reopen, as they became hot spots that have allowed COVID-19 to proliferate throughout the state. 

“If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting,” Abbott said in an interview last week with KVIA in El Paso. 

It’s not clear how many cases in the U.S. have been tied to bars and indoor dining establishments. It can be harder to track COVID-19 cases in states that don’t have enough testing or capacity to trace the contacts of positive case, especially when the number of new infections grows quickly. But public health experts say that as COVID-19 cases increase, indoor areas where people gather and socialize are risky. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines state that risk for infection is lowest when food service is limited to drive-thru, delivery or takeout and highest in indoor establishments where seating capacity is not reduced or spaced at least six feet apart. Even when indoor seating is spaced six feet apart, there is still risk, the CDC states. 

In Michigan, crowding at a bar in East Lansing has led to at least 85 COVID-19 cases, according to the Ingham County Health Department. 

About 130 cases have been linked to four bars in Minnesota. 

Deciding whether to keep bars open is crucial as state and local officials decide how they can reopen schools in the fall, said Andy Slavitt, a former Obama official who has been advising state leaders on COVID-19. 

“Governors, time to decide what’s more important: opening bars or preparing to open schools,” Slavitt tweeted Monday. 

New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoGovernors air frustrations with Trump on unemployment plans State aid emerges as major hurdle to reviving COVID-19 talks Nearly 100,000 children tested positive for coronavirus over two weeks last month MORE (D) on Monday said he was also considering delaying the opening of indoor dining, while New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said his state would delay doing so indefinitely. 

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He also noted that social distancing measures have been ignored at outdoor dining and bars in New Jersey. 

“We have seen spikes in other states driven in part by the return of patrons to indoor dining establishments, where they are seated and without face coverings for significant periods of time,” Murphy said. 

—Updated at 6:51 p.m.