Closing Bars and Restaurants Didn't Stop People From Gathering

Now officials in Chicago and New York are reconsidering their rules.


Banning indoor dining at bars and restaurants has failed to stop people from gathering together, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot admitted Thursday as she issued a call to reopen those establishments "as quickly as possible."

It's been nearly three months since Chicago ordered bars and restaurants to stop indoor service, but the ban has predictably failed to stop people from getting together. As the shutdowns devastated the city food service industry, they also created a black market for socialization. Lightfoot told a local CBS affiliate today that city officials now are seeking ways to cut down on private underground parties.

"People are engaging in risky behavior that is not only putting themselves at risk, but putting their families, their co-workers, and other ones at risk. Let's bring it out of the shadows," Lightfoot said. "Let's allow them to have some recreation in restaurants, in bars, where we can actually work with responsible owners and managers to regulate and protect people from COVID-19."

That is, of course, exactly what groups like the Illinois Restaurant Association and workers in the industry predicted would happen.

Whether Chicago's bars and restaurants can reopen soon is not entirely up to the mayor. Under rules imposed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, indoor dining is still banned statewide—though the Democratic governor has signaled that some other COVID-19 restrictions could be lifted soon.

Lightfoot's comments echo this week's acknowledgment by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that locking down bars and restaurants is not a sustainable strategy for dealing with COVID-19. As part of his state of the state address, Cuomo warned that New York "simply cannot stay closed" until herd immunity to the virus is achieved. "We will have nothing left to open," the governor said. "We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely."

It turns out that shutting down wide swaths of the economy was neither smart nor safe. Even with the lockdowns, the United States is currently seeing record levels of COVID-19 cases and deaths. California and New York are experiencing the worst outbreaks despite have imposed some of the strictest rules.

Individuals and business owners have every incentive to take precautions. But people will judge their level of risk and act accordingly, no matter what the government tells them.

Bans on indoor dining have been popular since last fall, when public health experts fingered restaurants as particularly dangerous vectors for spreading COVID, based on a Centers for Disease Control study of COVID infections in 10 states.

But contact-tracing data released by the Cuomo administration in mid-December showed that just 1.4 percent of the state's COVID cases in the previous three months were connected to bars and restaurants. In Minnesota, where both indoor and outdoor dining were banned for weeks during the holiday season (and where indoor dining was still off-limits until this week), only 1.7 percent of cases have been traced to restaurants.

In Los Angeles, city officials abruptly banned outdoor dining last month (indoor dining was already off the table), pulling the rug out from under restaurateurs who had spent significant sums of money retrofitting their facilities for outdoor-only service. Meanwhile, no evidence showed that outdoor dining was a serious health threat.

And as Chicago's experience demonstrates, simply shutting bars and restaurants is no guarantee that people won't get together to eat and drink. Indeed, since most restaurants are larger and better ventilated than your average urban apartment, it seems safer to let people gather there.

Lightfoot said Thursday that she will urge Pritzker to roll back the ban on indoor dining and that she believes business owners can enforce precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

"I feel very strongly that we are very close to a point when we should be talking about opening up our bars and restaurants," she said, according to CBS Chicago.

In fact, we're long past that point. But it's good to see some politicians catching up.