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Why Some Experts Think a Restaurant Curfew Won’t Help San Francisco

“Viruses are not vampires”

Experts question the reasons behind coronavirus-related curfews, noting that COVID-19 is just as easily transmitted during the day.
Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

Will enacting curfews help slow the spread of COVID-19? Experts are lukewarm on the notion, but as cities including Los Angeles and New York announce that bars and restaurants must close by 10 p.m., some are suggesting that a similar tactic might work in San Francisco. But according to county officials who spoke with Eater SF, a measure like this isn’t currently in the cards — and restaurant industry leaders hope things stay that way.

First, let’s define our terms: Unlike the curfews imposed across the Bay Area during June’s social justice uprising, the lockdowns in LA and NY aren’t the “no one is allowed to be on the street” variety. Instead, the orders mandate the closure of restaurants and bars by 10 p.m., but don’t restrict citizen activities beyond that — there’s nothing in those region’s orders that would force you to remain at home, unlike the ones we saw this summer. In New York, in fact, takeout and delivery orders are still allowed after 10.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday that state leaders were mulling some sort of restrictions along those lines, saying “we also are considering, full disclosure, a little bit of a preview, the notion of a curfew” at a media event. He declined to provide additional details, and hasn’t brought up the idea again in the days that followed, but as cases of coronavirus continue to climb across the state, it’s reasonable to assume that the “notion” remain on the table.

It’s a notion that doesn’t seem to have the full buy-in of experts like Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security who spoke with Slate this week. “Viruses are not vampires,” she says, so transmission is just as likely at 5 p.m. as it is at midnight, which makes the logic behind a mandated closing time murky.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, tells Slate that curfews can also pose unexpected risks. “Curfews often condense people visiting businesses into a more narrow period of time, which often means more crowding and potential exposures,” Popescu says, an assessment shared by Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, who says that curfews “could just shift the risky behavior into harder to regulate environments, such as from bars to house parties.”

That’s a concern shared by Laurie Thomas, the executive director of San Francisco dining lobby the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA). Obviously, Thomas is going to have her mind on the bottom line — New York restaurants, for example, say their sales dropped by 30 percent once its curfew kicked in — but she said that she believes that an “unintended consequence” of a shutdown order would be to drive separate households to gather, indoors, at home.

“We’re trying to provide a safe environment,” Thomas said of San Francisco restaurants, which are currently restricted to outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery alone. But if diners are booted from the city’s recently built (and, in many cases, well-heated) patios, parklets, and plazas, they’ll instead gather in less-health-order-conscious circumstances at home.

When asked by Eater SF if San Francisco was mulling a curfew, one city hall staffer (who was not authorized to speak on the record) responded “what restaurants are even open after 10?” They’re not wrong: San Francisco is well-known as an early-close town even prior to the pandemic, and we all seem to be dining out even earlier these days. That SF’s pre-existing lack of a late-night dining scene is one reason “there aren’t any discussions” of a curfew in San Francisco, another county employee tells Eater SF.

According to Thomas, that shouldn’t be the only reason a curfew isn’t a great idea for SF, however. “If you have to have everyone out by 10,” she says, “then you can’t seat anyone after 7.” At present, she says, most restaurants are serving diners until 9 or 10 p.m., which means that the already-struggling industry would lose about three hours of potential revenue every night.

Of course, as the wet weather continues and temperatures drop, those evening diners might be in shorter supply, something that Thomas says she’s seeing at her own restaurants. “Honestly, if my choice was between getting indoor dining back at 25 percent or getting a 10 p.m. curfew, I’d probably take the curfew,” she says. “That way, at least I’d know I’d be seating people all night.”