Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Public Health Experts Warn Bars Are Seeds For Coronavirus Outbreaks

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Bars and coronavirus don't mix, so say public health experts. And so many states have closed bars down. Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: At The Beer Junction in Seattle, the stools are stacked in the corner. The bar taps, usually busy, are for to-go drinks only. Owner Allison Herzog says Fridays aren't what they used to be.

ALLISON HERZOG: It would be very lively. It is weird to come in here and not feel that vibrancy.

STONE: Herzog had to shut down in spring after the coronavirus swept through Seattle. Then in late June her tavern was finally allowed to serve a few customers indoors at the bar.

HERZOG: I could hear people laughing at the bar, and that was so - it touched my heart to hear. And it just felt like something was normal again.

STONE: But it didn't last long. Coronavirus was soon back on the rise, and Washington state closed down some indoor service again. Herzog says it's disappointing, but she understands why the state pulled back.

HERZOG: I trust that they know what they're doing, that they will open when it's responsible and scale back when it's responsible.

STONE: The coronavirus is a social virus. Across the country, dozens - in some cases hundreds - of infections have been traced back to a single bar. What makes your local pub or nightclub so appealing is also what makes it so risky. There's drinking, eating, shouting over loud music, dancing, laughing.

OGECHIKA ALOZIE: 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 then it would be bars.

STONE: That's Dr. Ogechika Alozie, an infectious disease specialist in El Paso, Texas. He says these indoor settings are primed to unleash infections.

ALOZIE: As we talk, we spray. As we cough, we spray. That's where you get the most potential for transmission of these respiratory viruses.

STONE: Alozie worked with the Texas Medical Association to create a COVID risk scale for common activities like going to the movies or a sports game. But what ranked the worst of all - going to a bar.

ALOZIE: The reality is, to drink, you can't wear a mask. So you're taking off your mask. Lots of people, tight spaces - and as we all know, alcohol is a disinhibitor.

STONE: People are touching tables, glasses, bottles, each other. An outbreak linked to a bar in southwest Washington shows how even the best plans can go awry. For karaoke night, the staff spaced the tables, checked temperatures, even put up plexiglass near the singers. Dr. Alan Melnick is the county health officer who oversaw the investigation.

ALAN MELNICK: And you're asking the customers who are drinking and doing karaoke to follow the physical distancing and masking requirements. So that was challenging in this particular situation.

STONE: A few weeks later, close to 20 customers and employees had been infected. Because bars are so high-risk, some states have taken a very cautious approach. Other states opened them up only to shut them down as cases surged this summer. But some bar owners want to stay open. In Arizona, more than 60 bars are suing to overturn the governor's order to shut them down. Ilan Wurman is their attorney. He says if restaurants can serve alcohol and stay open late, why can't bars?

ILAN WURMAN: Either treat them all equally and shut them all down or treat them all equally and allow them all to conform to reasonable health measures. But what you can't do is pick out a criteria, something like alcohol. So it's - that's totally arbitrary, and it totally discriminates.

STONE: All over the country, bar owners are suing. Steve Smith owns a handful of honky-tonks in Nashville, Tenn., who argue they are being unfairly singled out.

STEVE SMITH: We've been targets, and it's wrong. We are citizens of the United States. We're small business people. And I've been doing this for 44 years.

STONE: So what kind of chances do these lawsuits have? Georgetown law professor Lawrence Gostin says historically, the courts have sided with public health.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: As long as it has a rationale and it's not singling out a bar because it disfavors bars, then it's absolutely clear that they have the right. In fact, they have the duty to do it.

STONE: And yet it's this duty that has upended business for bar owners like Seattle's Allison Herzog.

HERZOG: I lose a lot of sleep over it. I wake up, and I think every day, what am I going to do to keep going?

STONE: Herzog says The Beer Junction just hit its 10-year anniversary. Instead of a big blowout, they handed out some cans to go and kept things quiet.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.