Eyeing COVID-19 surge, governor seeks to close bars at 10 p.m. nightly

Even when businesses do reopen many aren't operating for as many hours, limiting what workers can earn. Some restaurants like this one in Nashville are counting on customers feeling safer eating outside. (Photo: John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

Just a day after a Franklin County judge halted a Columbus ordinance closing bars nightly at 10 p.m., Gov. Mike DeWine said he’s trying to impose the idea statewide.

Researchers, analysts, health departments and media reports have connected COVID-19 outbreaks to bars and restaurants. However, the Ohio Restaurant Association, along with an attorney representing bars challenging the Columbus ordinance, say the Columbus health department has failed to prove a link between the local bars and the virus’ spread.

Columbus Public Health spokeswoman Kelli Newman declined a reporter’s request for underlying data on outbreaks at bars and restaurants. She also declined to respond to an ORA (which is not party to the lawsuit) claim that there’s no evidence of a link between coronavirus and the hospitality industry.

“We will not be commenting as the case is ongoing,” she said.

The Ohio Department of Health said Wednesday it would provide data on viral spread at bars and restaurants but failed to do so.

After this story was published, ODH spokeswoman Melanie Amato said the Ohio Disease Reporting System isn’t designed to be searched for outbreaks. It groups them by specific outbreak, not facility type (i.e. bar, gym).

“I can say we know that at least 50 bars and restaurants have had outbreaks across Ohio over the last two months,” Amato said. “But again, that is an incomplete picture and outbreaks continue to happen. We have concerns about the spread of COVID-19 at establishments that serve alcohol for onsite consumption and therefore support the Governor on his decision.”

On Thursday, DeWine said to reporters there are “inherent problems” regarding bars and the coronavirus — people spend long periods of time congregating, hop from bar to bar, and can’t wear a mask while drinking.

He said the Liquor Control Commission will hold a special meeting Friday morning at his behest to consider his proposal, which would take effect via order issued Friday evening. Specifically, bars would have to stop serving at 10 p.m. and shoo patrons out by 11 p.m.

The proposal comes as new caseloads of COVID-19 and active hospitalizations break records on a near daily basis. 

Ed Hastie, an attorney representing the bars and restaurants challenging the Columbus statute, said in an interview before DeWine’s announcement that the industry is being unfairly singled out because of a few bad actors. Plus, he said it’s arbitrary to name a point in time and deem health practices safe on one end and unsafe on the other.

“Any time people get together in any fashion — if you don’t lock yourself in a room, you are subject to possibly exposing yourself to illness or infection,” he said.

The lawsuit itself alleges the city passed it without “reliable scientific evidence that establishes a causal relationship between the spread of COVID-19 and the hours of operation for restaurants, bars and nightclubs.”

It also details some of the financial beating the bars have taken. For instance, revenue at Pins Mechanical Company and 16-Bit Bar and Arcade, despite heavy spending on preventative measures and a cleaning team, is down 80%, the lawsuit states.

Late Night Slice revenues are down 50%; Oddfellows Liquor Bar revenues are down 60%. Both locations rely heavily on sales after 10 p.m., per the lawsuit.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Mark Serrott handed the bars an early victory, halting enforcement of the ordinance for two weeks for further analysis. A preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for August 6.

Separately, John Barker, President and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association, wrote Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika  Roberts a letter Sunday requesting she provide data to the ORA and the public behind the city’s order.

“We make this request because clear evidence of restaurants being the source of COVID cases seems nonexistent anywhere in the USA,” the letter states.

Barker’s claim is untrue.

While outside the U.S., both the CDC and The Lancet, one of the world’s premier medical journals, have published peer-reviewed research documenting COVID-19 spreading in a restaurant in China and a workplace cafeteria in Munich, respectively.

In market analysis based on the use of 30 million J.P. Morgan Chase credit and debit card accounts and OpenTable data, a company economist found the level of spending in restaurants today is a strong predictor of the caseload three weeks from now.

A Washington state county health department warned residents about an outbreak of 24 cases tracing back to a taqueria. The Detroit News reports a bar in East Lansing, Michigan is facing a revocation of its liquor permit after nearly 200 COVID-19 cases traced back to one night inside.

The list goes on and on. Some outlets have taken to setting fixed web pages of restaurant outbreaks.

The Ohio Restaurant Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Hastie said bars aren’t necessarily safe harbors from the disease, but Ohio made a political decision to try to re-open safely and has other tools at its disposal to go after bad actors instead of the industry at large.

“Let’s use a scalpel and not a hammer,” he said.

After this story was published, the Ohio Liquor Control Commission passed a rule terminating alcohol sales at 10 p.m. DeWine said he intends to issue an order formalizing the rule Friday night.