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Close the bars and bail them out

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There is, as Yglesias says, no way indoor drinking and dining among strangers can practically be made safe:

Surface transmission “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” according to current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.

Unfortunately, the practices Derek Thompson calls “hygiene theater,” where business owners or government officials go to great lengths scrubbing and disinfecting various surfaces, have become fairly entrenched at this point. Hygiene theater is appealing in part because it’s theatrical — you can see someone doing the scrubbing. But it’s also appealing because it can, in principle, be done everywhere. The fact that it’s not really necessary in most cases is probably good news. But it has helped bolster a false sense of security in some quarters, worsening a failure to keep up with the latest bad news about how transmission actually happens.

By late March, evidence was piling up that the practice of mask-wearing in Asia was right all along, and on April 3, the CDC started to recommend mask use. The evidence in favor of masks has only gotten stronger since then because as evidence of surface transmission has faded, evidence of “airborne” or aerosol transmission has gotten stronger.

The prior thinking on transmission — that we only had to worry about relatively large droplets — fell rapidly to the ground, hence the emphasis on 6 feet of distance. Those droplets are an issue, but doctors and scientists are increasingly worried about smaller particles that travel further. There’s a lot of dispute about exactly how to characterize this (see my Vox colleague Brian Resnick’s explainer for details) but the bottom line is, as Zeynep Tufekci writes, “we should focus as much on ventilation as we do on distancing, masks, and hand-washing, which every expert agrees are important.”

That brings us back to bars and restaurants. If you’re eating outside, you’re in a well-ventilated space. And as long as surfaces are reasonably clean and you’re not too close to anyone outside your household, you should be fairly safe. But if you’re indoors unmasked, eating and chatting, no amount of disinfecting wipes is going to make things safe unless the restaurant happens to have high-grade ventilation. And while developing clear standards around ventilation, doing tests, and paying for upgrades is one possible solution, those efforts need to be focused on critical facilities like nursing homes and health care providers, not nice-to-haves like restaurants.

The whole “airborne” debate can get very complicated and technical but the basic issue is simple: Officials who recognize it’s important to wear masks inside need to also recognize that you can’t eat while wearing a mask.

This creates another problem, in that state and local governments depend on these businesses for revenue, and most bars and restaurants will go broke if they’re restricted to takeout. But the solution to this is providing no-interest loans to businesses and bailouts for unemployed people and state and local governments — indeed, this is a much better solution, since most customers are going to refrain from dining and drinking in as long as the pandemic rages.

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