All eyes on bars as virus surges and Americans go drinking

By Kimiko de Freytas - Tamura, Dionne Searcey and Jack Healy

When the bars in Michigan reopened in June, Tony Hild forgot about face masks, social distancing and caution and headed out to Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub, a popular spot in the college town of East Lansing. There was a line out the door. Inside were 200 people dancing, drinking and shouting over the music.

“It was just so crowded, and I’m like, ‘This is going against everything I’m told not to do,’” said Hild, 23, a college student. “But I didn’t think I was going to get it.”

As people eager for a night out flood back into public after months of confinement, public health experts say that college-town bars, nightclubs and corner taverns are becoming dangerous new hot spots for the coronavirus, seeding infections in thousands of mostly young adults and adding to surging cases nationwide.

Louisiana health officials tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state.

And in East Lansing, home to Michigan State University, nearly 140 cases have been linked to Harper’s, Hild included. He came down with a sore throat, chest pains and fatigue, and by then — more than a week later — he had already visited four other restaurants.

“I definitely regret doing it,” he said. The outbreak, the largest in the county and possibly the state, prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan to announce Wednesday that she was closing indoor seating in bars in parts of the state, including East Lansing.

Public health experts say that the long nights, lack of inhibitions and shoulder-to-shoulder confines inside so many bars — a source of community and relaxation in normal times — now make them ideal breeding grounds for the coronavirus.

Now it is closing time — again. Governors in California, Texas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.

In other states, local health inspectors have fined bars and revoked their liquor licenses for allowing huge crowds and flouting other new health regulations aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this week addressed the issue of bars, which he deemed “really not good,” adding, “Congregation in a bar inside is bad news.”

The whipsawing rules have incited a backlash from bar owners who say that bars are being singled out and scapegoated by politicians and on social media as symbols of America’s reckless reopening.

They worry that a second round of closures will destroy their businesses, and question why bars are being targeted for closure while Americans in some states can still eat inside restaurants, wheeze on fitness-center treadmills and shop at malls.

In Texas, a group of bar owners sued Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, over his order last week closing the state’s bars, saying that the state’s taverns had been “relegated to Gov. Abbott’s loser category and sentenced to bankruptcy.” The closures also spurred protests at the governor’s mansion and at the Texas State Capitol.

In recent weeks, as states began reopening public life in phases, some people celebrated their first post-coronavirus haircuts and got long-delayed dental cleanings. Neighborhood bars, back in business, seemed to have a special allure.

“I cringe to see people flocking back into bars, but I get it,” said novelist and journalist J.R. Moehringer, whose memoir, “The Tender Bar,” chronicles a boyhood among tavern regulars. “It’s an incredibly lonely moment in American history,” he said. “When they let us out of our houses, some of us go for a hike, and others of us go for a beer.”

That beer can pose unique risks. Bars are often smaller and narrower than restaurants, with fewer windows, weaker ventilation systems and less space to squeeze by another person. Pounding music forces people to shout into one another’s faces, spraying more viral particles into the air.

Unlike restaurants where small groups stay at their own tables, bar patrons often linger and mix with one another for hours as drinks dull their caution, including about masks and social distancing. Even the conversations that animate so many evenings at bars — the laughs, the boasts, the stories and jokes — can release 10 times as many particles as a cough, experts say.

“The combination of all the factors — the age, alcohol, time of day, all those things come together to make it hard for even the most conscientious bar manager,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division at Minnesota’s Department of Health.

Many of the people being infected at bars and clubs are in their 20s, a group that is more likely to have milder cases of COVID-19. Health experts warn that young people with mild symptoms or none at all still pose a serious threat to older family members or other vulnerable people.

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