Ohio patrons can return to bars for late drinks, but COVID-19 experts recommend vigilance

Patrick Cooley
The Columbus Dispatch
Bartender Shea Bainbridge serves drinks to Lyle Bigelow, back right, and Alex Kiss, front right, at Two Truths. The bar has been busier since the statewide curfew was pushed back to 11 p.m., and traffic likely will increase now that it's lifted altogether.

Bar and restaurant owners are looking forward to serving customers late at night again after a statewide 11 p.m. curfew expired on Thursday.

The ban on most non-essential travel after that hour robbed bars and some restaurants of the lucrative hours when they are generally the busiest and customers tend to spend the most money.

“We'll be able to operate again,” said Jason Biundo, who co-owns Oddfellows Liquor Bar in the Short North and the central Ohio pizza chain Late Night Slice. “We won't be handcuffed.”

Biundo said he would re-open Oddfellows, which has been closed because it couldn't turn a profit under the curfew and other restrictions.

Infectious disease experts stress that the public needs to remain vigilant with the coronavirus still infecting thousands of Ohioans every day.

Return to normal may come slowly to Ohio bars— and may not last

DeWine instituted a 10 p.m. curfew in November and moved the curfew back to 11 p.m. in the final days of January. At a press conference three weeks ago, he said he would lift the restriction if active hospitalizations fell below 2,500 for seven straight days. Ohio hit that target on Monday. Officials then reported less than 2,000 active hospitalizations on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

At a news conference on Thursday, DeWine confirmed that he let the curfew expire, but urged Ohioans to continue wearing masks and staying at least 6 feet from other people.

"We may, in the future, have to put a curfew back on" if Ohio experiences a spike in cases, he said.

More:Half of Ohio's eligible bars and restaurants have applied for relief grants

Bar owners and restaurateurs don’t forecast an immediate return to normal, and social distancing requirements remain in place, but they expect the move to at least bring them more business.

“It's not flipping a switch, but we see a little bit more light at the end of the tunnel,” Biundo said.

Bartender Shea Bainbridge makes a drink on Wednesday night at Two Truths bar in Columbus on February 3, 2020. The bar has been busier since the statewide curfew was pushed back to 11 p.m., and will likely be moved back again if COVID cases continue to go down.

The bar and restaurant owner expects revenue to rise at least 10% over its current level now that the curfew is lifted.

“We still have to deal with a public that is a little leery of being out,” he said.

Laurie Granger, general manager for Two Truths in the Short North, stressed that coronavirus rules requiring bars to space tables at least 6 feet apart and encourage social distancing remain in place, meaning bars won’t see the late-night crowds that whooped it up in taverns and pubs before the pandemic.

But “this is the lifesaver that a lot of bars need,” she said.

Bars typically see the most business between 10 p.m. and 2:30 a.m., making the task of breaking even difficult with the curfew in place, Granger said.

Bars skeptical how much it will help

Not everyone greeted the impending news with enthusiasm. Susan Gall, who owns Hey Hey Bar and Grill in Merion Village, tempered her excitement Tuesday afternoon.

"Call me in a couple weeks and ask how we're doing," she said.

Gall doesn't expect to see any significant uptick in customers for another month or so, because patrons are still concerned about the virus.

"A lot of people are afraid, and you can't blame them," she said.

But that reticence appears to be waning, Granger said, as positive news makes customers feel safer patronizing bars.

“We are turning a corner and starting to see things reopen,” she said. “Instead of hearing every day that it's getting worse, and worse, and worse, we're hearing ‘be cautious, be safe.’ ”

Thom Ibinson, who owns Shorty’s Pizza in Delaware, wishes Ohio had relaxed the time restriction before Ohio State University’s football team competed for a national championship in January.

The pizza place and sports bar saw an uptick in carryout orders during the semi-final on New Year's Day and championship game on Jan. 11, but Ibinson said in-person customers generally spend more money.

“They would catch a little bit of the game, but we lose the add-on sales,” he said. The longer patrons stick around, the more drinks or appetizers they order, he said.

Experts advise caution

Dr. Joe Gastaldo, an infectious disease specialist at the OhioHealth hospital system, hopes Ohioans see the curfew move as a signal that conditions are improving, but not as an indication that conditions have returned to normal.

Even as cases drop, Gastaldo warned that spikes can happen at any time, especially with more contagious coronavirus variants circulating in the United States.

“This is not a time of celebration, this is a time to be cautiously optimistic,” he said.

“We’re recommending that we continue the same level of vigilance with all public health measures," said Dr. Mark Herbert, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Carmel Health System. "Masking, hand washing, and social distancing."

Whether or not the curfew helped contain the pandemic is an open question, but even with a lack of data on its efficacy, infectious disease experts considered it a good idea.

“One of the things about managing an outbreak,” Herbert said, “is there’s a tendency to do many things at the same time, and it’s often hard to identify the relative contribution of one intervention over the others.”

DeWine instituted the time constraint after Thanksgiving, when Ohio saw a spike in cases as Ohioans gathered for the family meals. Reported cases gradually fell after the holidays, and it’s difficult to tell if the downward trend stems from the curfew or a natural decline following a surge, said Dr. Mark Cameron, an infectious disease researcher for Case Western Reserve University.

“The curfew never got a chance to prove itself effective,” he said.

Cameron said studies show lockdowns and work-from-home policies are largely effective at reducing coronavirus infections and deaths. The principle behind curfews is similar: reduce opportunities for people to gather in groups.

“There's no argument with the logic of these curfews,” he said. “It's a signal to the public that the end of the day has come, Covid-19 is a serious problem, and we have to make these sacrifices. It’s not the cure-all for the transmissions, but it’s one of several tools being applied.”

Experts acknowledged that businesses are suffering, but said service industry struggles must be balanced with the need to contain a virus that’s killed nearly 12,000 Ohioans since March.