A little too close for comfort at Fla. bars and restaurants

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At a Key Largo restaurant, patrons observed the sunset, if not textbook social distancing.
At a Key Largo restaurant, patrons observed the sunset, if not textbook social distancing. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

When it comes to the coronavirus, bars and nightclubs could easily become for younger people what nursing homes have been for the elderly.

Exhibit A in Florida: Lynch's Irish bar in Jacksonville Beach, where 16 people tested positive for Covid-19 after a night out on June 6. A 40-year-old health care worker told a Jacksonville television station that she and her friends had been careful for months, staying home. But when the bars finally opened, they chose to celebrate.

She said they weren't wearing masks and just had a lapse in keeping socially distant. They were all among those who tested positive after their night at Lynch's.

After news of the outbreak, Lynch's closed for a deep cleaning, reportedly at the cost of $7,000. Two other bars on Jacksonville Beach, the Wreck Tiki Lounge and the Tavern, closed a day later for similar reasons.

That jibes with what I experienced on a weeklong trip recently that took me to several towns along Florida's west coast and along the Panhandle.

At a popular fish restaurant in downtown Sarasota, I was offered a spot at the six-stool bar because it was the only place available for immediate dinner seating. When I sat down there were spaces on either side of me, but before long all the seats were filled. I tried to create some space as I ate my dinner, but it was hardly six feet. As I ate, patrons ordered and accepted drinks at the bar over my shoulder.

Most of the those at that bar were young men.  At a hotel bar in another city on my trip, there were lots of guys there for a college baseball tournament, but also tables of young women. Except for me, the only ones wearing masks were the servers and bartenders.

Florida bars were allowed to open at 50% capacity starting on June 4, except in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, where they're still closed. But in those counties, there is often a fine line between a bar that serves food (closed) and a restaurant that serves alcohol (allowed).

I don't see how bone fide bars are going to be able to stay open without some real creativity, to say nothing of the vaunted nightclubs on Miami Beach. For most people, social distancing defeats the purpose of going to these places.  Who really wants to be in a bar where everyone is six feet from everyone else?  How can you bend the bartender's ear when you can't get close enough to be heard through your mask?

Plus, asking staffers who survive on tips to police their customers' social distancing is a tall order.

I'm sure there are bar owners with the best of motives and a real need to save their businesses by reopening. But from the viewpoint of the overall hospitality industry, the fewer new Covid cases, the more attractive Florida looks to tourists. And the more bars that are open, my guess is, the less attractive Florida is going to look this summer.

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