Deadly Mix: How We Allow Bars to Fuel COVID-19

Leigh Teece

As the spread of Covid-19 ravaged parts of our earth, science began to prove that super-spreading events paved the way for the deadly virus to dig into our bodies.

Around the world, responses were mixed. Compliant and smart countries, like Taiwan and South Korea, tested, tracked and contained the virus. Heterogeneous countries, which are inherently messier and harder to control, enabled the virus to spread. The Americas, except Canada, are a stark and ongoing example of spreaders, including the United States.

Kaiser Health News in partnership with NPR studied the microcosm of Covid-19 in bars, together with laws that protect the public from short-term decisions of small groups who insist a nighttime of fun outweighs the public good.

“Some states moved quickly to shutter bars early in the pandemic for months or longer, keeping them entirely closed or open only under very strict conditions. Many other states moved to reopen bars on a faster timeline — only to shut them down again as viral case counts rebounded this summer.“

Legal experts say public health authorities can exercise broad power to close down any business they deem particularly risky.

“They can’t regulate in ways that are arbitrary or capricious,” said Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University. “But if there’s good evidence that a certain class of establishment is causing the spread of infectious diseases, it’s absolutely clear that they have the right — in fact, they have the duty — to do it.”

Its helpful for us to identify where the appetite of Covid-19 finds its juiciest fulfillment.

“If you were to create a petri dish and say, How can we spread this the most? It would be cruise ships, jails and prisons, factories, and it would be bars,” said said Dr. Ogechika Alozie, an infectious disease specialist in El Paso, Texas. Alozie was a member of the Texas Medical Association committee that created a COVID-19 risk scale for common activities, such as shopping at the grocery store.

Covid-19 loves bars. 

“You can’t drink through the mask, so you’re taking off your mask. There are lots of people, tight spaces and alcohol is a dis-inhibitor — people change their behaviors,” said Alozie.

The evidence?

There are now many examples across the U.S. of bars and nightclubs that have fueled outbreaks.

In July, Louisiana rolled back its limited opening of bars, reporting that more than 400 people had caught the coronavirus from interactions at those businesses. Texas and Arizona ordered bars to close down when infections skyrocketed and customers continued to crowd into bars. In Michigan, public health authorities have traced nearly 200 cases back to a now-infamous East Lansing pub.

Alozie doubts that good intentions to wear masks and be socially distant can prevail in bars. 

The easygoing aerosol transmission of coronaviruses outsmarts bar-goers’ plans to be prudent once alcohol is consumed. 

Experts who study coronaviruses, like Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University’s Radiology Research Institute, simplify the science so we can take measures to protect ourselves until hopeful solutions like FarUVC light can create continuously safe spaces. 

Jose Luis-Jimenez, who studies aerosols, would agree. “The chance of catching the virus through tiny airborne respiratory droplets, known as aerosols, goes up significantly in indoor spaces. 

“When some states reopened bars after the first round of lockdowns, I thought these were superspreading events waiting to happen, and look — that’s what happened,” said Luis-Jimenez, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “It was irresponsible.”

Alcohol predisposes us to discount the discipline we need to ensnare Covid-19. We undo months of sacrifice when we set aside smart behaviors for the short-term pleasure of seemingly small, super-spreading events. 

Says Luis-Jimenez, “I would put my money that a bar is where the transmission is most likely to occur [compared with a restaurant] because that’s where you’re most likely to have people that are shouting and who are not wearing masks,” 

Read the full article at npr.org, August 22, 2020

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