The Urge to Open has Caused Bars and Diners to Become Focal Points for Coronavirus Spread

By: Kathleen Guo

Across the United States this summer, restaurants and bars, reeling from mandatory lockdowns and steep financial declines, opened their doors to customers—thousands of them, who had been craving deep bowls of farro, frothy margaritas and juicy burgers smothered in glistening onions. However, what we gained in the short term have led to broader consequences. The gathering and interaction between thousands have caused a resurgence in the number of cases.

In Maryland, 12 percent of new cases last month were traced to restaurants, contact tracers there found, and in Colorado, 9 percent of outbreaks overall have been traced to bars and restaurants. It is unclear what percentage of workers transmitted the virus among themselves, or to patrons or whether customers brought in the virus. But the clusters are worrisome to health officials because many restaurant and bar employees across the country are in their 20s and can carry the virus home and possibly seed household transmissions, which have soared in recent weeks through the Sun Belt and the West.

In Spokane, Washington, 24 customers and an employee, most of them between the ages of 19 and 29, all tested positive for the virus. All of their cases were linked to a taco restaurant, even though health department officials indicated that the restaurant was practicing all the recommended prevention methods.

Millions of restaurant and bar employees who were laid off during lockdowns have been desperate to get back to work and many have found themselves caught between bosses who want them back as soon as possible and customers who are unwilling to follow safety rules, like mask wearing and maintaining social distancing.

“I 100 percent felt forced back to work at the bar,” said Jennifer Welch, a bartender at a large pool hall in Baton Rouge, La. “Even though I have an immunocompromised 1-year-old and, at the time, my 58-year-old father was in hospice for Stage 4 small cell lung cancer.” Although unemployment would have paid more, she yielded to the pressure, Ms. Welch said, and worked 10-hour shifts.

“Restaurants generate a lot of sales and payroll tax revenue, so some of the pressure came from city and state governments,” said Daniel Patterson, a chef and a restaurateur in California, where cases exploded this summer. “And I think one of the factors behind the quick openings is that our society sees restaurants as disposable and those who work in them as disposable, so in general, people are less concerned with restaurant worker safety than they are with their own needs. They want a taco and a cold beer when they want it.”

And like many businesses, restaurants have been unable to tap into business interruption insurance money because the virus did not cause physical damage to the properties.

Contact-tracing can help keep restaurant outbreaks at bay, experts say, but only in places without widespread infections.

“I like to think that due to contact tracing and quickly quarantining close contacts, we have not had large outbreaks in restaurants yet,” said Melissa Lunt, the director of nursing at the Graham County Health Department in Arizona. When workers were sickened in two restaurants in the area, the health department moved quickly to quarantine them to prevent further community spread. [SOURCES]


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