As states ease their lockdowns, bars are emerging as fertile breeding grounds for the coronavirus. They create a risky cocktail of tight quarters, young adults unbowed by the fear of illness and, in some instances, proprietors who don’t enforce crowd limits and social distancing rules.
Public health authorities have identified bars as the locus of outbreaks in Louisiana, Florida, Wyoming and Idaho. Last weekend, the Texas alcohol licensing board suspended the liquor licenses of 17 bars after undercover agents observed crowds flouting emergency rules that required patrons to keep a safe distance from one another and limit tavern occupancy.
Adriana Megas found HandleBar Houston so crowded when she went one night two weekends ago that she left. “They weren’t counting who came in and came out,” said Megas, 38, a nursing student. “Nobody was wearing any masks. You would never think COVID happened.”
The owners of HandleBar Houston, one of the bars whose licenses were suspended, did not respond to requests for comment. Megas said she and her friends drove by five other jammed bars on their way home. “The street was insanely busy,” she said. “Every single bar was filled.”
In Boise, Idaho, at least 152 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in cases that health authorities linked to people who, unaware they were infectious, visited bars and nightclubs, officials said. On Monday, the Central Health District, which oversees four counties, rolled back its reopening rules to shutter bars and nightclubs in Boise’s Ada County.
Bars are tailor-made for the spread of the virus, with loud music and a cacophony of conversations that require raised voices. The alcohol can impede judgment about diligently following rules meant to prevent contagion.
“People almost don’t want to social-distance if they go to the bar,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore. “They’re going to be drinking alcohol, which is a social lubricant. People will often be loud, and if they have forceful speech, that’s going to create more droplets.”
On top of that, the very act of drinking is incompatible with wearing a mask, a primary way of limiting the spread of infection. Public health experts say many patrons are young adults who may think they are impervious to the coronavirus.
It’s certainly less lethal for them: Fewer than 4% of adults in their 20s with COVID-19 have been hospitalized, compared with 22% of those in their 60s, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 1 in 1,000 COVID-19 patients in their 20s die from the virus.
Nonetheless, as bars and other public places reopen, rates of infection in younger adults are rising, and bars are a particularly dangerous vector. Several outbreaks have been traced to bars that cater to college students. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, health authorities have received reports of more than 100 instances of positive COVID-19 tests tied to bar visits and bar employees in Tigerland, a neighborhood frequented by Louisiana State University students.
Reggie Chatman, a 23-year-old LSU graduate and sports reporter at a Baton Rouge television station, said he was surprised at how crowded the Tigerland bars were when he drove past them last weekend.