Save Dives, Save Lives: Paying Bars To Close Could Slow The Spread Of COVID-19

There's a bipartisan proposal to bail out the restaurant industry, though its prospects are uncertain.

Some 100,000 restaurants have permanently closed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and the unemployment rate for restaurant workers sits at 16.4%, more than twice the national average.

As the weather turns cold, the picture is going to get even more bleak. The restaurants that have been able to struggle through by relying on outdoor seating will be less able to keep up with their expenses as patios and sidewalks become inhospitable.

Inside dining, even in limited capacities, will pose a risk in areas where the virus is surging, as COVID-19 spreads most easily indoors, especially in places with poor ventilation. Most people take off their masks to dine or drink, and alcohol lowers people’s inhibitions, making them more likely to get close and disregard distancing advice.

In other words, all of the things we love about our favorite bar or restaurant ― the close quarters, the drinking, the music so loud you have to shout ― are what also makes them a recipe for virus transmission. And there’s a real risk many of your favorites will never come back.

One way to save bars and lives would be for the government to pay bars and restaurants to stay closed, and pay their workers to stay home, until the coronavirus pandemic is under control. But doing so is probably too radical for Congress.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers aren’t willing to throw money at the industry. In fact, there’s bipartisan support for setting aside $120 billion for restaurants, which is a pretty large amount for an industry-specific piece of legislation. The proposal doesn’t tell bars to close, but it could tide them over in the likely event that outbreaks force mayors and governors to reinstate shutdowns, as Chicago’s mayor did this week.

Democrats tucked the restaurant revitalization fund, as it’s called, into the latest version of their $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill. But Republicans and the Trump administration have been unwilling to go along with Democratic demands on coronavirus relief ― even though Republicans support many of the individual parts of the bill, including the restaurant part.

It’s not clear if the $120 billion has been a sticking point in the negotiations. Neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the lead negotiators on the deal, has ever alluded to the restaurant fund when they’ve listed their agreements and disagreements. Spokespeople for both ignored requests for comment.

Winter Is Coming — For Bars

There’s ample historical precedent for a restaurant bailout. At different times this country has bailed out railroads, airlines, banks and farms when those industries have faced unique crises.

Bars and restaurants are arguably more vulnerable to the combination of a pandemic and cold weather than any other type of business, and they employ about 6% of the workforce. Even after bars and restaurants recalled several million workers they’d furloughed in spring, employment in drinking and eating places is still down by 2.3 million jobs.

Expanded outdoor dining in New York City has helped restaurants throughout the warmer months of the pandemic, but restaurant industry workers are worried about what happens as temperatures drop if there is no additional federal relief money.
Expanded outdoor dining in New York City has helped restaurants throughout the warmer months of the pandemic, but restaurant industry workers are worried about what happens as temperatures drop if there is no additional federal relief money.
Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Brenda Waybrant has been unemployed since March, when she was furloughed from her job as a server at a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. At first, she said, her manager said she would return in May. Then October. Now her return date is the end of December.

In the meantime, Waybrant, 35, has seen her resources dwindle. In July, the extra $600 Congress had added to weekly unemployment benefits in March expired; lawmakers had not expected that pandemic relief would be needed for as long as it has been. Waybrant said her roommate had to cover their rent last month.

She’s not sure how she feels about returning to work. Her unemployment benefits will run out at the end of the year, which is when Congress has set long-term benefits to expire. But she’s seen the crowds of maskless bargoers downtown and doesn’t think it looks safe. Nashville hospitals said this week they’re nearing capacity as cases rise in the state.

“It totally depends on where this virus goes,” she said. “That’s the predicament so many people are in. Our situations are totally dictated by how well society does in taking care of the virus.”

Many restaurants emphasized outdoor dining this summer, taking advantage of relaxed city ordinances to fill up sidewalks or even occupy street space. But outdoor tables will lose appeal in the cold, no matter how many heat lamps, tents and igloos restaurants might deploy.

“We’re moving into the most dangerous period of the year,” said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president for public affairs at the National Restaurant Association lobbying group. “Unless you have a really effective drive-through or takeout model you are in a world of hurt right now and we need a plan from Washington.”

For many restaurants, indoor dining will be the only option. And eating and drinking in the same room as a bunch of other people could have unfortunate consequences as the coronavirus pandemic swells into a third wave of infections across the country.

Generally, your risk of contracting COVID-19 is lower when you’re outside because there is natural airflow and more space to be away from others. Confined spaces like bars and restaurants, on the other hand, make it more likely that patrons will come into contact with the virus if someone nearby is sick.

The coronavirus commonly spreads when a person comes into contact with respiratory droplets from an infected individual. When a person coughs, sneezes, projects or sings, they may expel tiny particles several feet away from them that contain the virus, which then can infect another person. This is often why experts stress physical distancing and mask wearing ― two things that likely won’t occur when people are dining or drinking indoors.

Health officials are now also acknowledging that COVID-19 can be airborne, meaning that tiny aerosolized particles of the virus can attach to dust and dirt spread around through the air. Because of their minuscule size, these particles can linger in the air for hours and travel longer distances rather than falling to the ground quickly like respiratory droplets. Research also suggests that these particles can potentially be spread by heating and cooling systems if there aren’t proper filters in place.

Of course, if people stayed home when they’re sick, this wouldn’t really matter much. But they don’t. More people are starting to resume their pre-pandemic lives, which has led to an increase in cases over the last few weeks. And many may not even know they’re sick in the first place: Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that around 40% of people infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic.

Stay Closed, Stay Open

All of this is why Elisabeth Rosenthal, a former emergency room physician, suggested in a New York Times op-ed that the government pay bars to close for the winter just like it pays farmers to conserve land ― i.e. pays them to not farm.

The proposal under consideration as part of a broader coronavirus relief package would give restaurants cash grants of up to $10 million based on their quarterly revenue loss. The aid wouldn’t come in loans, as it did with the Paycheck Protection Program, and there would be fewer requirements for when and how the money is spent.

Nothing in the legislation would encourage restaurants to close, as shutdown orders are under the authority of mayors and governors. Republicans would undoubtedly oppose any such requirement, and restaurants themselves might not want to shut down, even if they get paid for it. Several bars and eateries sued their governors over shutdown orders earlier this year.

“Nobody in Congress is advocating for a bar shutdown scheme, but it has been tried beforee. The city of Tokyo paid nightclubs to close for a short time to quell an outbreak over the summer. In past years, Penn State University has paid bars to close on St. Patrick’s Day to prevent bad behavior by students.”

“It is very premature to say that restaurants should be closed as an industry or mothballed as an industry,” Kennedy, of the National Restaurant Association, said. “The science is murky at best as to what kind of risk restaurants are.”

The science doesn’t seem that murky. Near the beginning of the pandemic, a small study of an air-conditioned restaurant in China found the coronavirus spread to separate families eating in the establishment. In South Korea, where COVID-19 was fairly under control, an outbreak of the disease was linked to a person who went bar hopping after lockdown restrictions eased in May.

There have also been plenty of examples in the U.S. linked to this type of spread, including in Boise, Idaho, where more than 150 cases were linked to people who visited bars and nightclubs in June. The evidence that these locations can be a danger zone has only continued to grow.

Of course, most people understand the risks, and that’s why businesses are suffering. Some 40% of restaurant operators surveyed by the National Restaurant Association said they don’t think they could survive another six months without another relief package from Congress.

Mark Menard co-owns two bars near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. that have been operating at reduced hours and limited capacity, with nobody sitting or standing at the bar itself, in accordance with the city’s coronavirus rules. Revenue is down relative to pre-pandemic levels, but most employees are still getting shifts. Menard has expanded outdoor seating and quickly bought heaters before summer ended.

“We were hearing that the heaters were going to become the toilet paper of the fall,” he said.

He likes the idea of a federal fund dedicated to restaurants, but is skeptical about the idea of being paid to close. Would every bar have to do it? Would there be exceptions? What if, under a hypothetical pay-to-close scenario, Menard’s bars accepted shutdown grants but other nearby bars stayed open instead?

So far, nobody in Congress is advocating for a bar shutdown scheme, but it has been tried in at least a couple of places. The city of Tokyo paid nightclubs to close for a short time to quell an outbreak over the summer. In past years, Penn State University has paid bars to close on St. Patrick’s Day just to prevent bad behavior by students. Some restaurants in Chicago are voluntarily shutting down until spring, both to save money and stay safe.

Despite his investment in heaters and blankets, Menard thinks winter will be rough, but he’s hoping to hang on.

“I don’t think it’s completely out of the question that we see a D.C. with a few places left and a whole lot of TGIFridays,” Menard said, referring to the private-equity owned restaurant chain. “I don’t think any of us realized how bad it could get. I think it will bounce back but I don’t think it will bounce back for years.”

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