Despite government guidance and efforts by bar owners to implement security measures, customers and employees have not followed even the simplest measures designed to prevent the spread – especially when customers were intoxicated, the researchers found.
With some places back on the market for indoor dining in places like New York and Portland, many American entrepreneurs are working to make the experience as safe as possible – something that Scottish researchers have found may not be so easy.
After a blockade in the UK, bars in Scotland were allowed to reopen in July under new guidelines, including keeping groups of customers at least one meter (a little over three feet) apart, keeping all customers seated and requiring the team to wear mask covers.
Niamh Fitzgerald, a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and colleagues visited 29 bars to see how these security measures worked in practice.
“Was it essentially about understanding what the risks are and how successful are our bars and pubs in controlling those risks?” said Fitzgerald.
Security measures have failed
The team found that employees did not wear facial covers consistently, some lowering their masks to speak to customers – perhaps against the purpose.
While most facilities were able to restructure their layout to accommodate a distance of one meter between tables, many still had problems with overcrowding.
“It was very difficult for them to completely eliminate what we call ‘pinch points’, so there were narrow areas in most places, either in the entrances, in the hallways or in the bathrooms, where it was difficult for customers to avoid coming together,” he said. Fitzgerald.
One facility covered the bar counter with black and yellow tape and a warning to stay away, but customers still crowded around the counter.
“None of the customers recognized that the tape was there,” wrote the researchers.
Much of the risk that the team noted was at night, when customers drank. The researchers note that alcohol consumption can affect a person’s hearing, vision and judgment, making it physically more difficult for them to comply with safety measures. It can also decrease inhibitions, resulting in people simply worrying less about obeying.
The team saw people jumping from table to table, touching and singing or shouting.
Some customers have made new friends in unexpected places.
“Two women from different groups … bumped into each other outside the bathroom and started screaming, hugging and jumping together,” wrote the team. “They then went into the bathrooms and went to a cubicle together, and were observed washing their hands for about two seconds when they left, although there were signs everywhere recommending a 20-second hand wash.”
The team described a heavily intoxicated woman asking a handsome waiter to take a picture with her. He obeyed, after which she kissed him on the cheek and thanked him.
In all cases, except for one case, the team failed to prevent this behavior, Fitzgerald noted. “We found that out mainly, they didn’t even try.”
In an industry where the customer is always right, it can be difficult for staff to establish the law when it comes to coronavirus precautions.
In interviews with business owners, many told researchers that they are used to managing intoxicated people.
“I think this level of intervention is probably – at least in Scotland – when people are very drunk and in disarray,” said Fitzgerald. “Whereas, the type of drunkenness in which these types of behavior happen is at a stage when people are overly friendly; they are just having fun. It is not the type of situation in which the team would have to intervene previously.”
“There is this kind of new expectation of behavior that neither the customers nor the team have really adapted to,” he added.
Fitzgerald believes that bars may be able to mitigate some level of risk by communicating clearly about expectations and trying to create an atmosphere of “self-policing” among customers. Although unlike places like supermarkets or retail stores, bars are inherently social spaces, and efforts to make them smaller may result in fewer customers.
Governments can help eliminate risk by implementing mitigation measures, such as curfews, noted Fitzgerald. After a major outbreak in August related to more than 20 bars and restaurants in the Scottish city of Aberdeen, the researchers noted that Scotland has tightened its guidelines. The country mandated the collection of customer information for contract tracking and banned background music in places, to prevent people from having to shout or approach to hear each other.
Of course, there is no way to eliminate the risk completely.
“It’s really looking at the moment, the transmission rates are low enough that we can tolerate that level of risk and be confident that if there’s any transmission, we can track it and track it and deal with it without becoming a bigger problem? “said Fitzgerald.
Many business owners are well aware that staying closed during the pandemic can be financially devastating.
“I suppose that governments may need to think about the support available for these facilities, so that they don’t feel obliged to open up if they don’t really think they can operate safely,” he added.