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Restaurants feel the backlash of bars' refusal to follow safety measures

Most of the nine states halting or reversing their re-openings are citing drinking places as the main villain.
Photograph: Shutterstock

In restaurants’ long and difficult march back to normal, bars are proving a terrible traveling companion.

Places that make most of their money from selling alcohol for on-premise consumption have been cited by one government figure after another as the triggers for halting or rolling back the reopening of businesses, including restaurants. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s express target for resuming shutdowns Friday were places that generate 51% of their revenues from beer, wine and spirits, though he also reined in restaurants’ ability to rebuild sales.  Eating places had to reduce their capacities again to 50% of their pre-pandemic seating levels.

Less than two hours later, after health officials reported nearly 9,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the state, Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation announced via Twitter that on-premise consumption of alcohol would be banned effective immediately at bars. The daily count of new infections topped the old one-day record by about 63%.

Bars were also the villains cited by the governors of New York and Maine in their warnings that the resumption of on-premise service may be halted for hospitality establishments. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already given state liquor authorities the power to instantly yank an establishment’s liquor license if it doesn’t follow social-distancing guidelines inside and up to 100 feet outside the place.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills showed she wasn't bluffing when she yanked one high-profile establishment's  liquor license for resuming on-premise service ahead of schedule, and then halted the reopening of all bars indefinitely.

The liquor authorities of Texas and Florida similarly tried similar tactics to discourage bars from allowing patrons to congregate in large, closely packed groups. Texas, for instance, revoked the licenses of 17 drinking places after regulators visited 600 bars throughout the state. Several high-profile bars near college campuses in Florida similarly had their ability to sell liquor rescinded because they weren’t adhering to the rules. But other outlets failed to heed the wakeup call, triggering the new prohibitions in both states.

Action has also come on the county and local level. Spikes in COVID-19 contaminations similar to Texas’ surge were traced in Wyoming, Louisiana and Idaho directly to bars. Officials overseeing the public health of four Idaho counties subsequently ordered a shutdown of all the taverns in their jurisdiction. One was Ada County, where Boise is located.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday that he was keeping his state at Stage 4 of its reopening plan instead of advancing to the next step of the pre-set schedule. In Stage 4, nightclubs are limited in their capacities and cannot provide seats; all customers must stand.

With 906 new COVID-19 cases reported for North Carolina on Wednesday, or just nine short of the all-time high, Gov. Ray Cooper decided to keep bars in his state closed by freezing the reopening process at Phase 2 for another three weeks. Phase 2 also limits restaurants to 50% of dining room capacities.

Meanwhile, health authorities have warned that bars can be particularly conducive to coronavirus contaminations because customers often have to yell over the music playing, potentially exhaling droplets of the virus when they do.

They also note that the clientele often tends to be young and social, and perhaps less cautious than older, more vulnerable consumers.  People visiting the places have expressed their surprise to the media that masks were not in widespread use, in part because fellow customers found the mouth coverings to be a nuisance while nursing a drink.

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