Why bars should be the 1st thing closed as COVID-19 cases rise, according to science

Shuttered bar in Austin, Texas
(Image credit: Sergio Flores/AFP/Getty Images)

When COVID-19 cases started surging across the Sun Belt, Texas closed the bars. A few hours later, Florida followed suit, then California, then a day later, Arizona. "If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said last Friday. The "bar setting, in reality, just doesn't work with a pandemic." This isn't puritanism, it's science. Bars are especially dangerous vectors of coronavirus transmission.

Public health experts say if people are going to leave their homes during the pandemic, they should maintain a distance of six feet from others, wear a mask to contain the saliva droplets and aerosolized breath that spread the virus, and stay outside as much as possible. Bars, one study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases put it, promote "heavy breathing in close proximity."

Bars are "the opposite of social distancing," Dr. David Hamer at Boston University School of Medicine tells The Associated Press. "Can you do social distancing at a bar? Can you wear a mask while drinking?" Drinking alcohol also lowers inhibitions and makes people more likely to flout safety precautions, especially the younger people who go to flirt and socialize at bars, added Natalie Dean, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Florida. "Young people have less severe illness, so they may be infected and able to infect others inadvertently."

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Arizona epidemiologist Saskia Popescu tells AP it can be hard for public health agencies to trace outbreaks to any individual location when they are overwhelmed by spiking cases, but when the dust settles, bars will likely figure prominently in the hot spots.

"You can make a cocktail at home," Popescu suggests. In many states, bars can (more or less) safely sell you the ingredients.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.