Is It Safe To Go To Bars & Restaurants As Coronavirus Restrictions Ease? Here's What Experts Say

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As COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders begin to ease across the country, many states have chosen to forgo re-upping restrictions and slowly begin to reopen. If you live in an area starting to ease restrictions on going out, returning to bars and restaurants may be on the top of your post-lockdown to-do list. If you’re wondering whether you can safely go to bars and restaurants in reopened states, the answer, as you might expect, isn’t a simple yes or no.

At the beginning of May, nearly 40 states started to reopen in varying stages. Some places are limiting reopenings, only allowing locations like places of worship and retail businesses to reopen. Some of those limits include safety guidelines still in place. (e.g. Wisconsin retail shops are open but for curbside pick up only.) However, many of these states don’t meet the White House’s criteria for states reopening.

Per a May 7 report from the New York Times, more than half of the states reopening don’t meet White House guidelines. The criteria include a “downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period” as well as a “downward trajectory of COVID-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period.” However, as the Times reported, in more than half of the states beginning to ease restrictions, the number of positive COVID-19 results is rising. Additionally, these criteria are notably more lax than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposed reopening guidelines. For example, the White House’s guidelines put the onus on local officials to determine whether to reopen while the CDC proposed an organizational tool advocating for a coordinated national response that gives community leaders step-by-step guidance to re-entering “civic life.”

If My State Is Reopening, Can I Go To Bars And Restaurants?

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Whether or not reopening expands to restaurants and bars varies from state to state. To see if and when your state plans on reopening, you can check out interactive maps from places like New York Times or CNN which additionally specifies the types of businesses that are allowed to reopen under these eased restrictions.

Many reopening states are allowing restaurants to open again with some guidelines in places. (e.g. Florida restaurants were allowed to start operating at 25% capacity starting May 4.) Fewer states are allowing bars to open right away but, of those states starting to reopening, bars will be allowed to reopen soon. However, many health experts are still advising against going out even those in states that are reopening, saying that lifting shelter-in-place orders is coming too prematurely.

Can I Safely Go To Bars & Restaurants?

Bustle spoke with three health experts on whether it’s safe for people to patron restaurants as they did pre-lock down. All three experts gave a resounding, “no.” Going out is going to look much different than it did at the beginning of the year. Everything from the number of customers allowed in at a time to how public toilets are kept clean and safe will need to change at least initially, Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease biologist from Virginia and research associate at the French National Institute for Development, tells Bustle. Abbate notes that the safest option is still staying home as much as possible.

“I would advise dining at home or patroning restaurants using mobile-ordering/delivery apps as long as we see appreciable numbers of new cases transmitted in communities across the US,” Dr. Nabeeh Hasan, Center for Genes, Environment and Health, National Jewish Health, tells Bustle. Hasan acknowledges that the impact of isolation on our social and occupational lives has been difficult. However, he says, “social distancing is the only real method to combat the spread of [COVID-19].”

“At this point, most communities are still facing the spread of COVID-19,” Natasha Bhuyan, MD, tells Bustle. “As a result, it’s actually the safest option to continue to stay at home, when possible.” Bhuyan also notes this is especially important for those who are in vulnerable populations. “If people do need to go out, they should be sure to wear a mask in public,” Bhuyan says, noting that this measure is also to keep others safe. Additionally, they should practice frequent hand hygiene.”

What Can Bars And Restaurants Do To Safely Reopen?

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The National Restaurant Association has issued guidelines for restaurants reopening, which include diligent sanitizing and continued social distancing as much as possible. Officials in states in varying levels of reopening are beginning to release business reopening guidelines. In California, for example, consumer-facing employees will need to wear masks, and restaurants must provide disposable menus and discontinue the use of shared supplies like condiment bottles.

“Regular sanitization efforts of hard surfaces with EPA-approved disinfectants is important,” Bhuyan says. “A barrier method, such as plastic dividers, is an additive option.” Bhuyan also stresses the importance of both employees and customers wearing masks “with the understanding that, of course, people cannot wear masks when eating or drinking.”

Abbate recommends restaurants keep groups of customers small by requiring reservations when possible or focus on take-out and small catering efforts. “Remember,” Abbate notes, “anything you enable your clients to do that spreads the virus puts your entire community at risk of a new lockdown.”

“To consider our return to the new normal, there’s likely going to be an ebb and flow to infection clusters arising and being contained through new social distancing orders on local and regional levels,” Hasan says. “We all want to be safe and enjoy our lives with the people we care about.”

In fact, many bar and restaurant owners are getting creative when it comes to maintaining social distancing guidelines between customers by placing mannequins and cardboard cutouts at empty tables.

What Could Be The Impact Of Reopening Too Early?

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As the growing number of states reopening, experts warn the consequences of opening prematurely could be detrimental to public health. We risk losing any progress made in prevention or not being prepared for a predicted second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The U.S. is currently at slightly under 2,000 deaths per day,” Youyang Gu, creator of the COVID-19 projection model which has been shared by the CDC, tells Bustle. The model uses up-to-date counts of deaths per day to forecast infection rates and future deaths. Gu notes that despite a slight decrease in reported cases of death (currently decreasing at an average ~1% per day), it’s unlikely that the number of deaths per day will drop below 1,000 this summer. “State reopenings will likely cause a second wave before the first wave can die down.” Gu anticipates that states reopening will cause an increase in infections and deaths. “In the case where the infections curve begins to rise exponentially after a reopening,” Gu says, “it may become necessary for regions to impose a second lockdown.”

Though many people may assume the situation will “resolve” come summertime, Gu notes that their projection model data says otherwise. Misinformation is unfortunately still being spread. "The data is showing that this epidemic is not going away anytime soon and I won't be surprised if the U.S. reaches 300,000 deaths by the end of 2020," Gu says.

While there are ways to safely go out—wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing — experts are still recommending people stay home as much as possible. “I am advising my own patients and friends and family to continue to stay at home.” Bhuyan said. “It’s the safest and smartest option for now. If too many people congregate in these spaces, we do risk facing a second wave of COVID-19.”

Experts:

Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease biologist from Virginia and research associate at the French National Institute for Development.

Navya Mysore, MD, family provider at One Medical

Youyang Gu, creator of the COVID-19 projection model

Dr. Nabeeh Hasan, Center for Genes, Environment and Health, National Jewish Health