Reopening Maine bars: If not now, when?

On Monday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that the bars in Maine would not be allowed to resume indoor service on July 1, as originally planned.

The announcement wasn’t surprising — at least to me — given that last week Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, announced that the state was reevaluating its approach to bars due to some reports across the country of outbreaks occurring at indoor bars.

In the governor’s press release on the subject, Shah reiterated the same point. “As we learn more about how the virus spreads, duration and density – specifically being in close quarters inside, as is the case with most bars – clearly elevate the risk of virus transmission.”

Mills herself said that the decision was “difficult but necessary,” while making clear that the delay was indefinite. No new timeline has been established.

Many Maine bars, like this on in Portland, have been closed since St. Patrick’s Day. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

To be fair, there is no question that bars have been at the center of some recent spread of COVID-19 in many states. In Louisiana, at least 100 people tested positive after bar hopping in Baton Rouge. At least 18 people in East Lansing, Michigan, tested positive after visiting a local brew pub. There are more. 

Additionally, there has been some speculation that bars are at least partly to blame in certain states — such as Arizona — that have seen an uptick in cases recently. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recently stated, “There are certain counties where a majority of the people who are tested positive in that county are under the age of 30, and this typically results from people going to bars.”

As Shah pointed out, in bars and nightclubs, distancing is more difficult, people speak loudly or even sing, and patrons become inebriated, making their decision making suspect. These things all increase risk.

However, I have to ask: Didn’t we know that already?

Bars are obviously a place that is inherently more risky than, say, going for a stroll outside in a park. They are inherently more risky than, say, going to a big box store to shop. They are even more risky than sitting down for dinner at your favorite restaurant. 

But we are getting into somewhat absurd territory here in quibbling over degrees of risk. How much riskier is the bar than the restaurant? It is clear, logically, that it is riskier. How much more, though? If I walk into my local pizza joint, how much more risk am I exposed to than if I go down the road and grab a beer at a bar?

No one knows, of course. All we have is anecdotal evidence of outbreaks occurring in bars. But then again, outbreaks have also been traced to restaurants, big box stores, and any number of other places that we currently allow to be open.

My question about bars is pretty simple: If not now, when?

Indoor service at bars, like everywhere else, can adapt to our new reality in a variety of ways, but they can only do so much. Bars are bars. No matter when you reopen them, people will go, they will drink, they will probably be closer than they should be, and there will be some level of risk associated with going to them. That will never change.

So if that is the case, what will be the metric that will make the Mills administration consider allowing these businesses to actually operate?

It certainly can’t be case count, hospitalizations, or healthcare capacity. As of my writing of this column, Maine had 449 active COVID-19 cases, which is down nearly 300 from the peak in late May. We currently have 26 people in the hospital, 12 of whom are in intensive care, and 6 on ventilators. In the entire state. 

Throughout the pandemic, Maine has had between 130 and 202 available ICU beds — we currently sit at 145 — and between 187 and 299 available ventilators, with well over 400 alternative ventilators also available. For those (like me) who keep track, the most people we have ever had in the ICU from COVID-19 was 27 on May 24, and the most people we have had on ventilators was 14 on May 28. 

Maine currently sits at very low and steady levels. It is difficult to imagine they will get much lower, until the development of a vaccine. 

Which again begs the question: if bars aren’t going to inherently change, and our healthcare capacity and virus count is unlikely to get all that much lower, what will be the thing that convinces the governor to allow bar owners to salvage what remains of their livelihoods?

Because right now, we are savagely destroying businesses and lives across Maine, all for protective measures that are going to make a difference on only the extreme margins. 

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.