Graham Kilmer

Why Are Bars Still Open?

They are key spreaders of COVID-19. So why are city and county health officials okay with bars being open?

By - Jul 14th, 2020 08:29 pm
Part of Third Street became Old World 3rd Street. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Part of Third Street became Old World 3rd Street. Photo by Carl Baehr.

The spread of COVID-19 is accelerating right now. So much so that the City of Milwaukee just passed an ordinance mandating the wearing of masks in all public spaces. But bars, pointed to by many experts as the leading culprits for this latest spike in disease, remain open.

Top health officials in the area have warned against going to a friend’s house, or coming in contact with people outside of your household. But bars and restaurants remain open.

The state has posted record numbers of new cases of COVID-19 in recent days. By Tuesday afternoon, the state saw 964 new cases of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours, a new record. It was the fourth time in recent days that the state set a new record high, with state officials saying the numbers were not the result of increased testing.

We have not been successful in flattening the curve,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. He said the city took “measured” steps to allow businesses to open up. “But if we’re gonna continue to have the businesses open, then we as residents, have to take additional steps to make sure that we can be out in circulation.”

In Milwaukee, a number of bars and restaurants have temporarily closed since they were allowed to reopen because of positive cases of COVID-19 among staff and patrons. The Associated Press reported this month that all across the country clusters of cases and outbreaks are being traced back to bars. The common activities in bars, such as close contact, yelling, not wearing a mask, are the “opposite of social distancing,” as one physician put it.

The city’s new mandate requires a mask anytime someone is in a public space and within six feet of other people. As Jeanette Kowalik, the Health Commissioner for the City of Milwaukee, put it: Essentially what this means is, whenever you’re outside of your house or wherever you live, you need to wear a mask.”

However, the mandate allows exceptions for both eating and drinking. So it won’t apply to someone drinking in a bar. Kowalik told Urban Milwaukee the mandate applies to bar and restaurant patrons “except to actively eat and drink.” City officials are hoping to see an effect from the mask mandate. Kowalik said it’s “extremely important” that patrons and staff wear masks “at this stage in the COVID response.” She added, “If we do not see progress, we will consider scaling back.”

Urban Milwaukee asked the area’s top public health officials during a media briefing Tuesday if they thought bars and restaurants should remain open. Dr. Ben Weston, director of emergency medical services for Milwaukee County, declined to answer. Kowalik said the health department is comfortable with bars and restaurants remaining open with the modifications to capacity, spacing and sanitizing that are in place under the city’s order. If they were still operating as they did before the pandemic hit, she said, then no, they should not be open.

Kowalik and Weston said during the same briefing that being exposed to people outside of your household is not safe right now.

Weston said, “Yeah, unfortunately, having friends over in your house for dinner, it’s just not something that’s safe to do right now.”

Said Kowalik: “It’s the point of, being exposed to people outside of your household that is the concern, because you can quickly be exposed and then everyone in your household can possibly be compromised.”

“I think wearing masks, changing your activities is a sacrifice everybody should be making,” Weston said.

Kowalik issued a specific warning to younger adults and teens, saying “you can be exposed to COVID-19 by hanging out with your friends, kicking it, going to parties, all of that and not having distancing. The six-foot piece is really important, having a mask is really important, and ya know, again, it’s just a culture change that we’re gonna have to make here in our area to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

It’s young people that are the major driver behind the massive spike in cases right now. And it’s young people, primarily, that are frequenting the bars in Milwaukee right now.

Younger populations are less likely, statistically, to develop serious symptoms or die from COVID-19. But Kowalik noted that some areas are beginning to see increasing numbers of young people in their intensive care units. 

And, Kowalik said, ‘recovering’ from COVID-19 just means you’re not testing positive for the virus anymore. After ‘recovering’ someone may still be left with damage to organ systems, their heart or lungs, among other complications.

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More about the Coronavirus Pandemic

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3 thoughts on “Why Are Bars Still Open?”

  1. Keith Prochnow says:

    But Graham, why are bars still open? What must be done, by whom?

  2. Phyllis Wax says:

    Yes, why are bars still open? Mayor Barrett, Common Council members, Jeanette Kowalik: why are bars still open?

  3. Mingus says:

    The bars should be closed. They will stay open until infections skyrocket like Florida unless Mayor Barrett or members of the Common Council say they need to close. Maybe the City should talk about revoking liquor licenses for bars that refuse to follow distance/canpacity guidelines.

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