The Ohio Liquor Control Commission’s decision Friday to ban alcohol sales after 10 p.m. is either a necessary move to corral the coronavirus or an unfair blow to bars and restaurants, depending on whom you ask.
Local health departments said that definitively linking cases of COVID-19 to bars is difficult. However, health officials said the recent spike in cases among young people who patronize those bars is undeniable. A spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine said the move by the state is needed to put a lid on dangerous behavior and stem the spread of the disease.
As of Friday, COVID-19 has killed more than 3,400 Ohioans and brought on the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
DeWine called for the statewide order on Thursday. The Liquor Control Commission’s approval means that bars and restaurants must now stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and drinks must be consumed by 11 p.m.
Bar patrons drinking late at night tend to ignore physical distancing guidelines and are less likely to wear face masks, which have been shown to slow the spread of coronavirus, DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said.
“This order is designed to target and discourage this particular type of activity,” he said.
Tierney stressed that the order was adopted with input from restaurant groups, but bar and restaurant owners said the move will devastate their business.
An Ohio Restaurant Association survey released last week found that roughly 31% of Ohio’s restaurants say they won’t survive 2020 unless conditions improve.
“That’s a big number,” said John Barker, the restaurant association’s president and CEO. The governor’s order will just make things worse, he said.
Barker said letting patrons continue drinking for an hour after the 10 p.m. cutoff will at least let them finish their drinks while they enjoy a late-night meal.
Bartenders will be most affected, said Frankie Heath, operations manager for Local Bar in the Short North and several Local Cantina locations in central Ohio.
“Most of the money they get happens after 11 p.m.,” he said.
Nevertheless, Heath said he understands the governor is trying to mitigate the spread of coronavirus and hopes the measure is temporary.
A dozen bar owners and bartenders told the liquor commission before its vote that the ban will destroy their livelihoods.
Columbus attorney Ed Hastie, who represents several bars that sued Columbus over a similar order, said the ban deprives them of their most profitable hours just as revenue is down and owners already have spent thousands of dollars to comply with social-distancing guidelines.
“I can’t be clearer when I say this: Every single bar and restaurant is failing,” he told The Dispatch.
He called the move unconstitutional because it singles out one industry. Liquor commission Chairwoman Deborah Pryce said before the vote that the group has broad authority to regulate liquor permit holders.
A judge stayed a similar ban in Columbus this week to determine whether the city has the authority to issue such an order.
Hastie said he plans to challenge the state’s ban as well.
“Right now, we’re working feverishly” to prepare a legal challenge and request a temporary restraining order on behalf of the bar and restaurant owners he represents, Hastie said.
Bar owners said they are being punished for the actions of a few bad apples. In a news conference Thursday, DeWine acknowledged that most bars comply with social-distancing restrictions, but said the order is necessary.
County and city officials in the state said the percentage of coronavirus cases connected to bars and restaurants is unclear. Dan Suffoletto, public information supervisor for Public Health Dayton and Montgomery County, said his agency linked one outbreak and an individual case to bars.
When asked how that compares to cases linked to private parties or community spread, he said, “We don’t analyze it like that at this point.”
However, cases among young people, who are more likely to patronize bars, has jumped 432% in Montgomery County since June, he said, mirroring statewide trends.
Pinpointing the precise moment of infection is often impossible, said Kevin Brennan, communication officer for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.
“We have people who say, ‘I’ve been going to work and doing my thing for three or four weeks, and I don’t’ know how I got it,’” he said.
Most cases in his agency’s jurisdiction, which does not include Cleveland, come from private gatherings and so-called community spread among family members and close friends, Brennan said.