Bars Are Giant Petri Dishes for COVID-19. That’s Why States Are Closing Them Down Again.

Bars Are Giant Petri Dishes for COVID-19. That’s Why States Are Closing Them Down Again.

In this June 8, 2020, file photo, Rodney Ott, owner of The Loft, makes mixed drinks from behind the bar for patrons as he reopens fully for the first time amid the coronavirus outbreak in downtown Flint, Mich.

By Keya Vakil

July 2, 2020

Many large outbreaks of COVID-19 have been tied directly to bars. One Orlando, Florida, bar has been linked to as many as 150 cases, and more than 130 infections have been tied to a single bar in East Lansing, Michigan.

The coronavirus is spiraling out of control in much of the country, and many state leaders are pointing to one specific setting as being disproportionately responsible: bars.

Over the past week, several states have either halted or reversed course on their reopenings and ordered the closure of all bars. Arizona, Florida, and Texas, for example, are seeing explosive growth of COVID-19 cases—an astonishing 28% of tests are coming back positive in Arizona—and have set single-day records for new cases over the past week.

The governors of these states have pinpointed bars as a major source of transmission, especially among young residents. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott even admitted he regretted reopening bars. 

“If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars,” Abbott told ABC affiliate KVIA last week, “now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting.”

RELATED: Arizona, Florida, and Texas See a Surge in COVID Cases. Now Their Governors Are Singing a Different Tune.

Abbott and his fellow governors are now facing a backlash from bar owners, who believe they’re being singled out and worry another shutdown may ruin their businesses forever. A group of Texas bar owners have filed a lawsuit against Abbott’s shutdown order, accusing him of discriminating against bar owners. Other bar owners held a somewhat tone-deaf protest on Tuesday and threatened to reopen on Wednesday, in defiance of Abbot’s order.

But are bars really responsible for growing outbreaks? Are they really that unsafe? We decided to answer those questions and more.

Why Are Bars Being Closed?

Many large outbreaks of COVID-19 have been tied directly to bars. An Orlando, Florida, bar was linked to at least 41 confirmed cases and potentially as many as 150, according to state health officials. In Michigan, more than 130 infections across the state have been tied to a single bar in East Lansing.

At least 100 cases were tied to another bar in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while videos and photos of packed bars in Arizona stirred alarm and outrage as caseloads grew. Several outbreaks in Texas have been tied to bars as well.

Are Bars Really Unsafe?

Yes. Studies have shown that indoor settings are significantly more likely to lead to transmission of COVID-19 than outdoor spaces. 

“Being indoors for a prolonged period of time around people you don’t know increases risk of transmission,” Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, associate chief medical officer for a community health clinic in East Austin, Texas, told COURIER.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also warned against spending time inside bars. “Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news,” he told a Senate panel Tuesday. “We really have got to stop that.”

RELATED: Where Is It Actually Safe to Go? We Asked 6 Medical Experts.

The loud volume of bars can be particularly insidious in facilitating the spread of COVID-19.

A study out of Japan found that “heavy breathing in close proximity, such as singing at karaoke parties, cheering at clubs, having conversations in bars, and exercising in gymnasiums,” was associated with many COVID-19 clusters. 

Bars Are Giant Petri Dishes for COVID-19. That's Why States Are Closing Them Down Again.
In this Thursday, June 18, 2020, file photo, patrons fill the Crow Bar in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP, File)

“Do not go to a loud bar,” said Dr. Dara Kass, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center. “Don’t go into a loud, closed space. It requires you to be up close with somebody and speak with them in close proximity, which is the opposite of what we’re doing. Close proximity talking without a mask on is the worst thing you can do.”

There are other factors at play in bars that make them potential virus hotspots. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, so people forget precautions, said Natalie Dean, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Florida. She also noted that the attractive, healthy person buying you a drink could be an asymptomatic carrier and potentially infect you with the virus.

“Young people have less severe illness, so they may be infected and able to infect others inadvertently,” Dean said, noting outbreaks in Japan and South Korea associated with restaurants, bars, and karaoke parties.

Which States Have Shut Down Bars?

  • Arizona
  • California (Contra Costa, Fresno, Glenn, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Merced, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Solano, Stanislaus, Tulare, and Ventura counties)
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Texas

Virginia has also hit pause on reopening bars inside restaurants, while Delaware will keep bars around the state’s beach closed indefinitely. Idaho has also shuttered bars in Ada County, home to Boise, while Wisconsin officials ordered bars in Dane County to halt indoor service ahead of the July 4th weekend. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also announced Wednesday that indoor bars in much of lower Michigan, including the Detroit area, would be ordered closed.

Bars in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, have also been banned from selling liquor for on-site consumption, though they can continue to-go service. Other states, such as Connecticut, have yet to re-open bars at all.

Are All Bars Closed?

It depends. In Colorado and the relevant California counties, bars that serve food and drinks can remain open for dine-in and/or outdoor dining, delivery, and take-out under certain rules. In Texas, any bar that receives “more than 51% of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages,” has been ordered shut, though these establishments may remain open for delivery and take-out. 

In Arizona, all bars whose primary business it is to sell alcohol are closed, though they can continue to sell liquor via delivery and take-out. Restaurants and golf courses that serve alcohol, however, may remain open. In Florida, all bars and restaurants that earn more than 50% of their revenue from alcohol sales have been ordered to stop selling alcohol to customers on-site, but they can still sell alcohol to-go. 

Broadly speaking, it’s safe to assume that stand-alone bars and nightclubs and those focused on liquor sales are closed, while restaurants that happen to serve liquor are open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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