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June 18, 2020

July 1 opening for Maine bar, tavern indoor service may be moved back

Photo / Maureen Milliken COVID-19 outbreaks that began in bars in other states are spurring Maine to reconsider the July 1 date for reopeing indoor service at bars and taverns.

Two COVID-19 outbreaks in other states tied to indoor bar service, and the risky atmosphere an indoor bar provides, may spur the state to move back the projected July 1 opening of bar and tavern indoor service in Maine.

Nirav Shah, director of Maine CDC said Wednesday that outbreaks in Jacksonville, Fla., and Boise, Idaho, both directly tied to an infected bar patron, along with elements that make bars susceptible to COVID-19 have caused the state to "re-evaluate the timeline" for opening indoor service. He said no definite decisions have been made on the reopening, but health officials are following the cases.

Outdoor seated service for bars, breweries and tasting rooms statewide reopened last week. Bar and tasting room service is listed in the Stage 3 portion of the state's reopening plan, with a limit to 50 customers. State officials have said from the beginning that the timeline is a guide, but will change as metrics concerning cases and testing are evaluated throughout the course of the pandemic.

But Shah said at his daily briefing Wednesday that a "constellation of factors" has prompted the state to re-evaluate that timeline as to when bars can safely reopen. He said that other states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, are doing the same thing.

He said the concerns are not just theoretical. "There are now actual documented outbreaks traced to individuals spending time with one another at bars." He said the way public health officials learn about how the virus operates is by watching outbreaks to see what happens and how they occurred. 

Given that, the state is taking a "hard look" at whether bars in Maine can open in a safe manner. "We do so looking at data, not any particular date," he said. And that data includes what's gong on in other states.

'Difficult tightrope'

Businesses in Maine, particularly in the hospitality industry, have become increasingly frustrated with the state's reopening process, saying it is having a devastating impact on the state's short tourist season. In late May, the state's craft brewers pushed to be allowed to open for indoor service in June, along with restaurants.

Shah called the balance between public health and the economy a "difficult tightrope."

He said, "We really are trying to be thoughtful in balancing all of the interests, while keeping public health front of mind."

The two main factors of COVID-19 transmission are duration and density of exposure. "Bars raise significant health concerns on both fronts," Shah said.

Lack of social distancing combines with people are speaking in high volumes, which spreads particles at a higher rate than normal speech, and people in bars aren't likely to wear face coverings while drinking.

"Bars tend to be crowded, with people staying for a long time and talking loudly, all which can contribute to COVID-19 spread.," he said. he said individuals tend to be in close contact and social distancing is "extremely difficult."

"In fact, the reason you go to a bar is to not social distance," Shah said. 

An opportunistic virus

He said that allowing reopening on a regional level, as was done with restaurants is "something we're looking at," but even in places were the prevalence of the virus is low, "the nature of being in bar itself is a very high risk activity." He points out that Boise, for instance, is in a low-COVID area, but there are now 34 reported cases tied to their bar outbreak.

He also said that the virus can spread quickly once it takes hold. In Jacksonville, the outbreak closed not just the affected bar, but several bars in the area.

"As the outbreaks in Jackson and Boise show, there is a distinct risk with opening bars early, we in Maine could very well have an outbreak at any one of our facilities here," he said.

In Jacksonville, 23 people — 16 patrons, 7 staff members — none wearing face covering were infected in a single night. In Boise, 34 cases are tied to a series of downtown bars and started by one infected bar patron over either one night or several nights.

"I think what these two bar-related outbreaks demonstrate is just how opportunistic this virus can be," Shah said. "Over the course of a few hours in the bar in Jacksonville, it appears that up to 23 individuals were infected, if not more. 

"Our goal on all of this is to prevent Maine from being one of those states that you see on CNN on the map that is bright red, instead of green, where we are now," he said.

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