Like one of those fairytales designed to teach children not to talk to strangers or to look beyond superficial things like looks and riches in a potential mate, comes a story from Florida: A 40-year-old woman and 15 of her friends have tested positive for coronavirus after a night at an Irish pub in Jacksonville Beach.

The components of this story feel fantastical. 15 friends? How did she wrangle them all on the same schedule and get them to a bar? What does going to a bar with 15 friends even feel like?

But the moral is crystal clear: Bars are potential coronavirus hot zones.

Bars are the antithesis of social distancing. Bars’ entire existence hinges upon humans being smashed in uncomfortably close together and talking loud, drinking heavily — a mask-free activity — and losing their inhibitions and good sense. Americans have been told to avoid all of these things, specifically, because the virus thrives in these conditions. And as with the Jacksonville 16 and perhaps across the country, we’re already seeing the consequences.

Still, establishments across the country are slowly beginning to come back. While New York City began its phase 2 (which allows outdoor drinking and dining) reopening on June 22. Jacksonville, clearly, has had a head start, with much of Florida allowing patrons back into its bars earlier this month. But with few states slowing down their reopening plans, there will be a time when bars — at least the ones that make it through the economic downturn — open back up. Those bars won’t necessarily ever be the same as they were in the before times.

Why bars can be coronavirus hot zones

Going to a great bar beats drinking at home. Maybe the drinks are good. Maybe the space is great. Maybe it’s a place our friends are or where we want to meet strangers. For whatever reason, a great bar is a place where we want to be.

“Bars are especially difficult for many reasons, including all the expected ones: for many bars, crowding is part of the appeal, often with little ventilation, which is great for virus transmission,” Stephen S. Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health told me. “People usually want to talk or meet other people in bars, which makes social distancing impossible and mask-wearing impractical. And, of course, you’re not wearing a mask when drinking, and many people don’t want to gulp their drink down so they can put their mask back on. Who would? Alcohol also may make people less aware of precautions or of mistakes.”

Mistakes like touching your face or not washing your hands or putting on your mask amplify your risk of contracting the virus. As Morse mentions, in a bar it’s also not just your individual mistakes that could affect you, but also the mistakes of the other patrons around you. Even if you’re being extra careful, you’re essentially in a room full of other people whose adherence to safety completely varies.

The other thing to keep in mind is that patrons aren’t the only people in a bar.

Bartenders, barbacks, security, and other staffers’ jobs put them at risk too. They usually have more interactions — handing drinks out, exchanging money, cleaning up tables, walking around the establishment — with other people and groups of people than patrons do. That mobility increases their risk of infection and also increases their risk of spreading the virus, should they encounter someone with it. A careless patron from days before can come back to haunt servers and customers alike.

Because bars are such a high-risk setting but also essential for socializing, some countries have developed innovative ways to compromise. South Korea, which has been heralded for its handling of the outbreak, has created a system wherein patrons scan a specific code that includes their personal data, like phone number and address, before entering a bar or other high-risk locales. This allows the government to contact trace people in the event of an outbreak.

But while these codes help ensure safety, they also chip away at any semblance of privacy. Some people might want to keep their nightlife private. For example, if I was in a country that isn’t particularly gay-friendly, I wouldn’t really want the government there to know which gay bars or nightclubs I was at.

In the US, an extensive tracking measure like South Korea’s seems like an impossibility. Setting aside privacy concerns (not an easy sell in the US), it may be too late. Even in the face of rising cases, states have already begun reopening.

It feels as though implementing such as system at this point, without shutting down places a second time, would be playing a game of catch-up. So what can American patrons, owners, and bartenders do to curb the risk at hand?

How we can be safe in a bar again

Chris Barnes knows it’ll never be the same as it was. Barnes is the co-owner of Flaming Saddles, a popular gay, Western-themed bar with locations in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and LA’s West Hollywood. In the before times, Flaming Saddles featured bartenders who would periodically dance on top of the bar to the delight of the crowd (not unlike Coyote Ugly). Dancing isn’t even on Barnes’s mind right now, though.

“If my landlord said I’m giving you the next year free, I still wouldn’t open tomorrow,” Barnes told me, explaining that he’s worried about the safety of patrons and, more urgently, his 60 employees across two cities. “I’d love to make money, but if I’m opening and get my kids sick, I’m a fucking asshole.” The rising cases across the country and in California, specifically, make him anxious.

Barnes said that both of his outposts have been shut down for almost four months now, even though bars in Los Angeles County are allowed to open under health guidelines. Being closed is hurting the business financially, but following reopening guidelines like cutting capacity and maintaining social distance in bars will also likely hurt revenue.

A bartender tapes off a socially distant stool cluster as the Fish Tails bar and grill opens in Ocean City, Maryland.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

But while their financial needs and negotiations with landlords on both coasts can be a frustrating and daunting experience, Flaming Saddles’ owners want to take their time and make sure their bars are safe enough for patrons and staff to come back to.

That includes ordering hand sanitizer stations and educating their staffers on virus spread, but also equipping everyone, clientele included, with new equipment.

“We’ve bought boxes of 100 percent cotton bandanas, and we’re custom making them with ear loops that are long, so you can put the drink under your [mask] and never have to take it off,” he said. “We’re making our own custom-made, Flaming Saddle-logo face mask. We’re getting baseball caps with the shields for our bartender so they have the face mask and the face shield. I just had delivery of hand sanitizer stands that we’ll put all over the bar.”

Flaming Saddles, when it reopens with its bandana-clad patrons, may look more like a Western saloon than it ever did. And these are the kind of steps bars will need to take to ensure their patrons and staff are safe.

Near Portland, Oregon, in Clackamas County, Dustin Hannifan has been back to work. Re-opening schedules and requirements vary from state to state. In Oregon, counties have been on a faster, looser track than New York City.

Hannifan busses at a diner-bar Elmers, which has been open for the past couple of weeks. Clackamas instituted its reopening phase on May 23, which included the opening of bars and restaurants as long as 6 feet of distance are maintained between tables and employees wear masks.

“I really try to make sure the sanitizer is changed regularly, menus are wiped with bleach, tables are scrubbed well and to wash my hands often,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t feel safe at this job because customers haven’t been required to wear masks. Over the last month, Oregon health officials have raised alarm about the increase in cases — before June 7 daily new cases never hit above 100, and in the two weeks since June 7 daily cases have been around or above 100 .

“[Wednesday, June 24], the county is requiring patrons to wear masks, but being in a predominantly ‘conservative’ county, who knows if customers will adhere to that rule?”

But Hannifan can’t afford to worry. “I’m pretty broke and facing eviction, so I kinda have to keep my head down and make money unfortunately. At my pre-corona furlough job they took sanitation much more seriously.”

Morse, the Columbia epidemiologist explains, the general rules of thumb to minimize risk — good ventilation, frequent hand-washing and sanitizing, no touching, and always put on a mask in a restroom :

If it’s indoors (outdoors is better but may not have the same atmosphere), good ventilation, with as much air movement as possible (open windows, fans, or good A/C).

Bartenders can protect their patrons and themselves by wearing masks, keeping some distance (if not six feet then an arm’s length), keeping their hands clean, and putting the drink on the bar for the patron to pick up (which many bartenders do anyway). They can certainly use disinfectant or sanitizer to wipe down the bar itself and similar surfaces fairly often, which patrons may expect anyway, and make sure glasses and utensils go through the dishwasher and aren’t reused before then.

Restrooms are another issue — a good place to wear a mask, and observe all the hygienic precautions.

Taking all this into account, the idea of being in a bar again is really about re-imagining how we think about bars at a fundamental level.

Not every bar is going to require you to don a bandana and look like an outlaw like you might at Flaming Saddles, but they are going to be different. They’re going to be a little less crowded, may require you to learn how to drink with a mask on, and will possibly be cleaner than they’ve ever been. (I for one, wouldn’t mind a little more Orville Peck in our lives). And for perhaps the first time, we’re also going to have to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about the health risk we’re putting ourselves in just by going to a bar.

“The least asked question is, ‘Are you concerned about your your staff and your customers getting sick?’” Barnes said. “That should be the first question. It should be the first thing when we’re deciding whether we’re opening or not. And you know, it’s more of a moral question than a business question.”

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