Last call: Governors roll back hours instead of reopenings as bars take blame for coronavirus surge

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Desy’s is one of the last bars left standing in Morrisville, North Carolina. 

Owner Desislava Nikolova made her American dream come true by opening Desy’s and another bar in nearby Cary after immigrating to America from Bulgaria 11 years ago. While the coronavirus pandemic forced the majority of her counterparts in the local bar scene to close, she has been able to keep hers open through the support of longtime customers.

But Nikolova has been served another restriction from state officials, which she expects will exacerbate her struggle to stay open: a new statewide mandate to stop serving alcohol after 11 p.m.

“This could even destroy us completely,” Nikolova said. “Nobody wants to come to a restaurant or bar with these restrictions.”

Employees at Sophie’s Bar in Cary, N.C., with masks and gloves on.

Source: Desislava Nikolova

Some state and local jurisdictions, rather than ordering bars to shutter, have started implementing “last call” orders, which ban the sale of alcohol past a certain time. The restrictions come from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and are an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19. The idea is to prevent large crowds from gathering and to help maintain social distancing.

However, some health experts say it’s unclear whether the curfews will fulfill their intended purposes. Bars have proven to be areas where the coronavirus can spread easily. Friends gather in groups for long periods of time — sometimes inside where there’s less air circulation — and don’t wear masks as they’re talking or drinking. 

“Bars are problematic in terms of Covid,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Michigan. “It’s sort of a perfect storm for Covid spread, especially if it’s in an enclosed space.” 

‘Not the summer to party’

Covid-19 cases have been linked to bar visits in several cities. More than 180 cases were traced to Harper’s, a bar in East Lansing, Michigan. In Louisiana, where bars remain largely shuttered due to rolled-back reopening measures, health officials connected at least 100 cases to bars in Baton Rouge’s Tigerland district.

Colorado, Mississippi, Rhode Island and the Carolinas are all among states that implemented last-call orders. Local areas like St. Louis County and Hampton Roads, Virginia, have similar rules.

Positioned as alternatives to stricter mandates, the regulations sprang up after governors in states with surging outbreaks, such as Texas, California and Florida, were forced to close bars only a few weeks after they were reopened.

“We have been bending over backwards to keep the bars open,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday as she ordered bars to close at 11 p.m.

When announcing a 10 p.m. last-call order in Colorado on July 21, Gov. Jared Polis warned residents that “this is not the summer to party.” He previously ordered bars that did not sell food to close again in late June, only days after they were allowed to reopen, amid a rise in cases.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raised similar concerns about young people, saying it’s difficult to maintain social distancing while under the influence of alcohol. The state recently cracked down on bars, suspending liquor licenses for businesses that violated Cuomo’s executive orders. 

“To young people: This is not the time to fight for your right to party,” Cuomo said at a press briefing. “I respect your right to party, I fully respect it. I would enshrine it in the state law, if you want to know. You have the right to party, but let’s be smart about it.”

Public health experts weigh in 

Spending long periods of time with people from different households is considered higher risk for spreading the virus, so the last-call orders could be beneficial if they force people to not cluster in a particular setting, said Glen Mays, professor of health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health. 

Polis’ office has used cellphone data to monitor mobility, which indicated people were spending long periods of times in bars, Mays said. The Colorado School of Public Health has a Covid-19 modeling team that studies the effects of various policy changes and is in regular communication with state public health officials, he said. 

“I think that motivated the early-closure policy in Colorado, to see if we could get people to kind of shorten up their duration of time,” Mays said. “We were seeing people spending hours in these bar settings.”

However, there’s a lot of room for uncertainty, he added. The restrictions could cause a behavioral offset, meaning people come to the bar earlier in the evening to drink, making the crowding worse. Although outdoor sites are less of a risk than indoor, Mays said congregating in any area could negate efforts to contain the virus.

Michigan’s Malani said the risk could be reduced further by preventing people from congregating while waiting in line and by reducing capacity, ordering through cellphones and monitoring people’s behavior.

“The fact that the answer is ‘we’ll limit the number of drinks or we’ll cut it off at a certain time.’ I’m not sure that that’s a very meaningful change,” she said.

Alcohol misuse is also a public health problem, and the coronavirus could exacerbate the issue if people make poor decisions when separated from their social groups, she added. This risk could be more pronounced at colleges.

“I think the days of really large parties, big house parties where everyone’s crowded, I don’t think those are going to happen as much,” Malani said. “At the same time, these are young adults who have social needs. That’s a part of their well being, too, and they do need to be interacting with other people.”

Bar owners remain skeptical 

Some bar owners aren’t convinced the new orders will have their intended effect. They say the restrictions don’t solve the issue and will intensify their financial strain. Bars have been among the last businesses to reopen as lockdown measures eased.

Ty Thames, who owns bar-restaurants in Mississippi State University’s hometown of Starkville, said he understands the need for public health measures like social distancing and only serving alcohol to seated guests. However, he said Gov. Tate Reeve’s 11 p.m. cap on alcohol sales is arbitrary.

“If people are seated and have a server with a mask deliver their food and their alcohol, I don’t think the beer is less safe at 10:59 than it is at 11 or 11:01,” Thames said. “It’s the precautions that you take that really makes a difference.”

Thames said customers would be safer being able to stay in the bar where social distancing can be enforced, rather than going somewhere private to continue drinking. And he said stopping alcohol sales early has a noticeable financial impact: an additional sales cut of 10% to 20% after already taking nearly a 60% hit due to the pandemic.

Layne Flournoy, who owns Zydeco, a bar and concert venue in Birmingham, Alabama, said the state’s 11 p.m. cutoff targets businesses like his, but the virus can spread anywhere, at any time.

Flournoy said he begins seeing strong sales around 10:30 p.m. on a typical night, so having to stop serving alcohol 30 minutes later has made him question if opening is still worth it.

“It blows my mind how they’re setting this up and how they think this is going to make a difference,” Flournoy said. “Is this virus the boogeyman? Does it just come out at 11 o’clock or 11:01, and you better go hide if you went to a bar? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Flournoy, Nikolova and Thames say they are happy to do their part to preserve public health but feel the rules neither keep people safer nor help their businesses stay afloat. If anything, Nikolova said, the orders will only encourage people to drink faster, not less.

Nikolova has been working as a cook and bartender in her establishment to keep costs down in a bid to survive. She said she has wondered what Morrisville would be like without a bar. Now, she’s worried she may find out: If her bar closed, Hooters would be the only one left.

People go to a bar to leave their problems at the door, she said. “I’ve seen people propose to their spouses, I’ve seen people sign important contracts in my bar,” she said. “Bars are the social life of America. What is a city without a bar?”

The trouble with coronavirus: No bouncer or restriction can stop it from entering.

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