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No, really, close the damn bars

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Whenever I’m critical of state and local leaders who have opened up bars and in-person dining when it is plainly unsafe, people bring up the squeeze being put on them by Congress’s failure to provide state and local aid to help governments make up for plunging tax revenues. It is certainly true that Republican opposition to state and local aid is absolutely disgraceful and will create an enormous amount of misery. But nonetheless responding to this by opening the bars is completely counterproductive, because the critical basic fact still hasn’t changed: you can open restaurants, but you can’t make people go to them. You inevitably end up in a situation where you get enough customers to create serious spikes in infections but not enough customers to sustain low-margin businesses or to prevent fiscal calamity. Moreover, the inevitably failed attempts to re-open bars and in-person dining ends up having negative impacts by damaging parts of the economy that are more potentially viable:

Debates about when to impose and lift activity restrictions aimed at stopping the coronavirus are often framed as pitting economic growth against disease prevention, but this frame is wrong for two reasons. First, as the economists Austan Goolsbee and Chad Svyerson argue in a new working paper comparing economic activity in adjacent counties with differing coronavirus-related regulations, coronavirus-related drops in economic activity appear to be overwhelmingly driven by choices made by individual consumers and firms, not by government regulation. Regulations are important for determining the precise nature of economic activity — when you close indoor dining, people spend less in restaurants and more in grocery stores — but have relatively modest effects on the aggregate amount of economic activity. That is, if people are scared of getting sick, they will go out and work less and spend less, even if the government does not order certain kinds of businesses to close.

Second, when you permit activities that are especially risky from a virus- transmission perspective, all other activities become riskier than they would otherwise be as a result. If you open bars and people take that opportunity to hold coronavirus super-spreading events with groups of friends, there is a larger population of infected people out there who can give COVID-19 to people they meet at the office, or in a supermarket, or in a small gathering at a neighbor’s home. So while reopening bars would seem to be a way to let some people go back to work, generate some more sales tax revenue, and give a frustrated public another opportunity to blow off steam, it is likely that jurisdictions that reopened their bars hurt their economies by increasing the virus spread and making members of the public reasonably more afraid to engage in a wide variety of activities seemingly unrelated to bars.

The fact that better epidemiological conditions allow you to engage in more economic activity makes it especially crazy that so many conservatives who favor a faster economic reopening have been critical of mask mandates and dismissive of private choices to wear them — even sometimes saying, as Republican consultant Alex Castellanos did this week, that masks are a social and political affectation. There are some questions about whether masks are truly necessary in some settings. But widespread mask-wearing in public indoor spaces should make congregating indoors for economic purposes less hazardous and therefore make a wider variety of economic activities sustainable.

The fact that Republicans are more committed to pandemic-spreading identity politics than their own re-election prospects is a whole other post.

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