States lift limits on bars despite risk of virus

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States across the country are lifting restrictions on bars and restaurants even as public health experts warn they are a leading source of coronavirus transmission as the country braces for a fall surge.

In Florida, a state that was hit hard by the virus over the summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced late last week that he was lifting all restrictions on bars and restaurants, leading to some images of crowded bars over the weekend. 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) announced on Tuesday he was lifting all coronavirus restrictions on businesses. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) last week lifted all capacity limits on bars and restaurants, though rules still call for physical distancing and having customers be seated. 

The announcements come despite public health officials pointing to bars and indoor dining as major sources of transmission, given that they bring people together indoors in close quarters for extended periods of time, and people cannot wear masks while eating and drinking. 

“I’m sure you can appreciate that as people consume alcohol they tend to become less physically distant and as a result of that bars are a major source of transmission,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said Monday on ABC that Florida’s move on bars and restaurants is “very concerning to me.”

“When you’re dealing with community spread and you have the kind of congregate setting where people get together, particularly without masks, you’re really asking for trouble,” he added. 

Closing bars is one of the methods Fauci has advocated, along with people wearing masks and avoiding crowds, to help slow transmission without having to resort to full-scale lockdowns, especially as colder weather raises the risk of a fall surge and an average of more than 700 people per day continue to die from the virus.  

In fact, the White House coronavirus task force has repeatedly warned in its weekly reports to states that areas with high levels of transmission should close bars and limit indoor dining to 25 percent capacity. President Trump himself, though, has not echoed those warnings, and has in fact urged states to open up businesses, leading to conflicting messages coming from the White House. 

Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, even made the recommendation for Tennessee to close bars while standing next to the governor at a joint press conference in late July, only to have Lee moments later say he would not do so. 

Lee said Tuesday at a press conference announcing the lifting of restrictions that “after six months, Tennesseans have learned how to assess risk and how to take the right steps to protect themselves and those around them.” 

According to the COVID Exit Strategy tracking project, there are currently eight states with more than 25 new cases per day per 100,000 people, which the Harvard Global Health Institute classifies as being in the “red zone.”

Governors have not closed bars in any of those eight states (Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin) except for Iowa, where the governor has closed bars in two counties.

Hanging over the decisions on closing bars and restaurants is the fact that the industry has been hammered by the coronavirus economic downturn, and many restaurants and bars are struggling to stay open. There is bipartisan legislation in Congress to provide $120 billion in assistance to restaurants and bars, which could help ease the financial pressure to allow those businesses to fill up with customers, but the bill has been stalled as leaders have so far been unable to reach a deal on a broader coronavirus response package. 

DeSantis, the Florida governor, cited economic hardship in the restaurant industry as a reason to lift restrictions. “I think that this will be very, very important to the industry,” he said Friday at a press conference announcing the change. 

“You can’t say no after six months and just have people twisting in the wind,” he added.

Texas, like Florida, closed bars in late June to help turn around a surge in cases at the beginning of the summer. But unlike Florida, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is still keeping the bar closures in effect, warning of the spread of the virus that would result from reopening them. 

“Because bars are nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations, they are still not able to open at this time,” Abbott said at a press conference in mid-September. 

While not as drastic as the steps in places like Florida, bars are reopening with restrictions in some places as well. Las Vegas in mid-September reopened bars with a 50 percent capacity limit. Chicago is reopening bars with a 25 percent capacity limit. 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in early September found that people with coronavirus were about twice as likely to report having dined at a restaurant in the 14 days before becoming ill than people without the virus. 

“Bars, restaurants, indoor dining, are associated with transmission, that has been shown,” said Hanage, the Harvard professor. 

He noted that the virus tends to spread in clusters, meaning a small percentage of infected people are responsible for a disproportionately large amount of transmission.

“Obviously if you’ve got a bar open then the size of that cluster can be that much larger because more people are gathering together and interacting together,” he said.    

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Deborah Birx Donald Trump Florida Iowa reopening Ron DeSantis Tennessee

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