If we really want to stem the spread of the coronavirus as winter looms and we wait for a vaccine, here’s an idea: The government should pay bars, many restaurants and event venues to close for some months.
That may sound radical, but it makes scientific sense and even has a political precedent. We pay farmers not to cultivate some fields (in theory, at least, to protect the environment), so why not compensate owners to shut their indoor venues (to protect public health)?
In the past nine months, we’ve learned a lot about this particular coronavirus and how it’s most likely to spread. Drinking establishments and indoor event venues have emerged as ideal environments for transmission. And there’s good scientific logic to explain that.
Viruses are not villains who go after their prey; they’re passive opportunists. Some spread through food or when left on surfaces. Others, like this coronavirus, can be transmitted through tiny droplets that can linger in the air after an infected person coughs, talks or breathes. The virus spreads most easily indoors and particularly in crowded, poorly ventilated places.
More important, people can be infectious while their bodies are incubating this virus for a couple of days before they develop symptoms, or even if they never develop symptoms at all. So you might go to a bar or a wedding feeling top-notch, or just maybe a little off. Drink, kiss and dance till you drop. Then you wake up the next morning feeling awful. It’s not just a hangover. It’s COVID-19.
That explains why this virus is exceedingly contracted at “superspreader” events. (More so than the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) A person who is shedding a good deal of the virus still feels well enough to hang out in a tight (likely indoor) space where people mingle boisterously with others they don’t know or don’t see often. And they can’t wear masks, because they’re drinking.
No wonder bars are a problem.
In scientific parlance, the coronavirus is more of a “heterogeneous” than a homogeneous spreader, according to Bjarke Frost Nielsen, a researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. Along with his colleague Kim Sneppen, he uses mathematical modeling to study the pattern of the spread of the virus. That heterogeneous spread means that it tends to expand in burst-like outbreaks, often centered on a meeting place — a hot spot — rather than oozing slowly across a country.
There is some good news in this finding, Nielsen told me: “You can close down certain types of gatherings and a few types of places and tamp down the majority of the spread of the disease. And you can carry on with the rest as pretty normal.”
Back when we knew little about the novel coronavirus, the government responded with a hammer. The Paycheck Protection Program treated all small businesses equally, providing them with loans to shut down so long as they paid their employees. Now we can use more delicate instruments.
Food and clothing stores — indeed, most any kind of shop — can function safely with masking and attention to distancing and sanitizing. We don’t go to these places to chat, and we can all wear masks inside them. Factories and assembly lines can protect workers with masking and spacing. Schools can do the same for students.
Even movie theaters can arguably safely operate with masked patrons, quality ventilation systems and spacing between viewers or viewing groups. They just won’t be able to sell as many seats.
But bars and restaurants that depend on packed indoor dining and concert halls with dance floors? Most are attractive for exactly the reasons that make them such petri dishes for the coronavirus — the crowding, the drinking, the carousing with new, different people. That’s why some bar and restaurant owners say they would welcome a program that compensated them to shut their doors this winter. Peter Kurzweg, who co-owns three of what he calls “drink forward” establishments in Pittsburgh that used to have bustling happy hours, says that “bars and restaurants are unique in that to be really safe, they have to mitigate to a point that it’s not a bar or restaurant experience anymore.”
He and his partners have so far weathered the pandemic with outdoor seating on the sidewalk and in an alley. They have taken advantage of government loan programs. They have invested in tents and heaters and encouraged patrons to “lean in” to having fun outside. But as fall turns to winter in Pittsburgh, he knows it won’t last. “I walk around saying, ‘Winter is coming. Winter is coming.’ We need to do everything we can to survive.”
Some states have allowed restaurants to open indoors at 25% or 50% capacity — indeed, that is permitted now in Pittsburgh. But Kurzweg has not done so, because he doesn’t feel it’s safe. Anyway, he added, “No bar or restaurant can make it at that capacity — on the best days in normal years, our profit margin is 10%.”
Some very spacious high-end restaurants, and those in temperate climates, might be able to make it work. Most can’t.
Bars and other venues that depend on drinks are not essential services. We want them to survive so that in the future we can enjoy them. So why not pay owners who cannot keep their businesses afloat safely this COVID-tainted year an average of their normal monthly income to shut down for some months? They would keep paying their employees and help break the chain of coronavirus transmission. Maybe we could get creative and ask them to use their kitchens to help feed Americans who are going hungry.
With bars closed, you could still drink and socialize with smaller groups of people at home or outdoors, when the weather allows it. That may not be quite as much fun, but nothing is much fun while the coronavirus is around.
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Kaiser Health News
Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.