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Do you really need that beer that badly?

In many parts of the world that have made tremendous progress in reining in the coronavirus, the pandemic is getting a second wind – and that resurgence has been, to varying degrees, alcohol-fuelled.

Montreal, London, Seoul, Tokyo, New Orleans, Jerusalem, Johannesburg and Sydney have all seen notable numbers of cases linked to drinking establishments since they loosened public-health restrictions.

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In other areas, such as the Sun Belt in the United States, the reopening of bars, restaurants, casinos and nightclubs has been like pouring fuel on an already simmering fire.

This should come as no surprise. Alcohol use, and misuse, is ingrained in our wider culture. Drinking is often portrayed as harmless fun and even a social necessity, but the dramatic public-health effects tend to be overlooked.

Now the ubiquity of beer, wine and spirits in our daily lives has become another twist in the COVID-19 story. First, governments deemed liquor and beer stores to be essential services – and now we’re making reopening bars a higher priority than reopening schools.

If you wanted to create the ideal conditions for the transmission of respiratory illness, especially one that can be spread by people with no obvious symptoms, you could scarcely imagine a better laboratory than a postlockdown bar.

Take a large group of people who have been cooped up for a few months – principally young people who already feel invulnerable and randy – and cram them into a tight space, often with no windows and poor ventilation. Then crank up the music so they have to speak loudly and moistly, and pour them drinks so they don’t wear masks. Shake, stir and sit back and watch them increasingly lose their inhibitions in this COVID-19 heaven.

Even with the best intentions and precautions – servers wearing face shields, the liberal use of plexiglass, tables being set two metres apart – physical distancing is going to be difficult to enforce. After all, bars are places where people move about and mingle. After a few drinks, metres can become centimetres. And while the outdoors is much better than indoors, it’s not a guarantee of complete protection.

This past weekend, Montreal Public Health officials said that anyone who had visited a bar, or worked in a bar in the city since July 1, should get tested for the coronavirus. The move came after cases were reported in at least five bars. Quebec more broadly has also seen the epicentre of its outbreak shift from Montreal to surrounding suburban areas, and again the jump in cases in areas that had been spared to date has been linked to bars and house parties.

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In response to this concerning trend, the province has tightened up its notoriously liberal liquor laws. Last call is now midnight instead of 3 a.m. In a move with shades of Footloose, dancing has been banned. And the maximum number of customers allowed in bars have been slashed to half of what’s listed on the liquor licence.

Countries around the world have deployed such measures to try to limit the risk inherent in bars, too. South Africa has temporarily banned alcohol and imposed a curfew, efforts that were intended primarily to free up hospital beds – alcohol-related trauma is the main cause of ER admissions – but could also limit the spread of the virus.

Japan, meanwhile, has tried an approach that’s more carrot than stick. Tokyo has offered bars the equivalent of $6,300 for every 10-day stretch they remain closed. Still, it has suffered several outbreaks related to karaoke bars. And in Ireland, only pubs and bars that serve “substantial meals” have been allowed to reopen, and patrons are limited to a 45-minute stay.

When Britain reopened pubs and bars, there were striking photos of large gatherings of drinking in the streets. Subsequently, several pubs that recorded outbreaks were closed. The law also now requires that drinkers leave their contact info, which will be held for 21 days.

That rule is designed to make it easier to trace those who have been potentially exposed. But contact tracing becomes monumentally more difficult as bars open up. In Seoul, after a single infected man visited five bars, public-health officials had to track down 11,000 people so they could be tested.

Here in Canada, we’ve been vigilant for months and it’s paid off. It would be a shame to see that success swallowed up by a lust for a few mojitos, especially as Ontario has just announced that bars in 24 out of its 34 regions can reopen later this week. So let’s keep the bars closed – at least the indoor ones – and concentrate our efforts on something important, like getting kids back in the classroom safely. The dance floor can wait.

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