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California Says Bars Are Coronavirus Hot Spots, Orders Closures in Counties Across State

Spike in infections prompts Contra Costa County to reverse a plan to reopen restaurants and bars

Bars in several California counties have been ordered to close, after the state health department identified them as hot spots for coronavirus infections
Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sunday that seven counties across the state must close their bars, after cases of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) hit new highs. He also said that bar shutdowns in several other counties — including two in the Bay Area — are “recommended,” prompting Contra Costa County to halt a July 1 plan to reopen indoor dining and drinking.

Newsom’s order requires bars in Fresno, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, San Joaquin, and Tulare counties to close, and asks health departments in Contra Costa, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Stanislaus, and Ventura counties to voluntarily close bars in their regions.

Santa Clara county’s bars are currently closed, its health department says, and thus far, the county has not announced a plan to reopen them. Contra Costa County had previously announced a plan to allow bars and indoor dining to resume on July 1, but on Monday, said that all reopenings would pause for at least a week.

“It does not make sense at this time to open additional business sectors that could further accelerate community transmission,” Contra Costa County’s health services said via statement. “These businesses and activities will remain closed in Contra Costa until county data indicate that the spread of the virus has slowed, as measured by at least a week of stable case numbers, hospitalizations and percent of tests that are positive.”

Newsom’s announcement comes two days after San Francisco had at first announced the reopening of bars for outdoors drinking, then, the very next day, reversed that decision by announcing that an uptick in COVID-19 cases would postpone that opening.

According to a statement from the California Department of Public Health (CA DPH), bars in those counties that do not offer sit-down, dine-in meals may continue to offer curbside pick-up of drinks to be consumed elsewhere, but on-premises (that includes outdoor drinking) must cease. That’s because, the CA DPH says, bars are an ideal place to get coronavirus because of their culture of mingling and lingering, as well as the effects of alcohol on human behavior. Here’s their explanation:

A bar, foundationally, is a social setting where typically not only small groups convene, but also where groups mix with other groups. Physical movement within the establishment, duration of time spent in the establishment, and the degree of social mixing within individuals and groups are all greater in bars than in other hospitality sectors. Further, alcohol consumption slows brain activity, reduces inhibition, and impairs judgment, factors which contribute to reduced compliance with recommended core personal protective measures, such as the mandatory use of face coverings and maintaining six feet of distance from people outside of one’s own household. Louder environments and the cacophony of conversation that are typical in bar settings, also require raised voices and greater projection of oral emitted viral droplets. The sector’s workforce faces higher exposure to diseases transmission because of the environment in which they work, compounded by the necessity for patrons to remove face coverings to consume drinks, especially while seated at a bar or moving around and mixing. In their totality, these factors present a higher likelihood of transmission of the coronavirus within groups, between groups, and among the workforce. These factors have led to an increasing concern by public health professionals within California and throughout the nation identifying bars as the highest risk sector of non-essential business currently open. There is a growing body of evidence tracing large COVID-19 outbreaks in both urban and rural states, to bars.

Beyond higher risk of transmission in bar settings, contract tracing, a key measure needed to control spread, is also more challenging in bars. Undertaking contact tracing of a droplet-spread communicable disease based on exposure at a bar is extremely difficult because of the constant mixing among persons, including unknowing prolonged and close contact, and lack of record-keeping of patron attendance. Unlike other sectors where tracking who comes in and out of a setting and where duration of visits are shorter, bars are particularly challenged to do these tasks as well as necessary, even under the best of modifications.

Bars generally attract a younger adult population. While younger adults without co-morbidities tend to have less severe symptoms and overall disease outcomes, increased cases, even in this cohort, will lead to increased hospitalizations and deaths. As the virus spreads more broadly in this population, younger individuals become a source of spread to more vulnerable adults and the broader community, a factor that is complicated by the fact that younger individuals have a higher likelihood of asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic infection.

The state first ruled that bars could resume business on June 12 in counties with coronavirus infection rates deemed low enough for reopening to be deemed safe. Since then, cases in the state have skyrocketed, and as of Monday morning, reports the Bay Area News Group, the state’s seven-day average of COVID-19 cases hit an all-time high Sunday, up 43 percent from the week before.

Meanwhile, Marin County — which, while not named in the state’s bar-closing order is also seeing a massive spike in cases, will continue with its plan to resume indoor dining on July 1, officials say. The region saw a record number of new cases among its residents last week, and that doesn’t even count the 871 (as of publication time) infections in the population of San Quentin State Prison, which is located in Marin.

At least 89 workers at San Quentin — many of whom live in Marin County — have also fallen ill. “We’re seeing patterns we need to pay attention to,” Marin County health officer Dr. Matt Willis says via statement. “We’re not closing anything down. We’re just slowing the pace in response to the data,” he says. That means while indoor dining will resume in the area on Wednesday, other businesses like gyms, nail salons, and tattoo shops will not reopen as planned.