Boise Downtown Bars COVID-19

Bouncers oversee the entrances at Silly Birch and Whiskey Bar in downtown Boise.

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On Thursday, June 18, Central District Health announced it had been working with bar owners in downtown Boise to keep their businesses open while also stopping the spread of COVID-19 that started popping up in the bars since reopening.

“We all thought we were on the same page after our Thursday meeting. We would continue to follow their recommendations and go above and beyond to keep our establishments safe and healthy,” Humpin’ Hannah’s co-owner Rocci Johnson wrote in a press release.

But on Monday, June 22, plans had changed for CDH, which announced that Ada County would regress to Stage III of Gov. Brad Little’s Idaho Rebounds plan. As a result, bars and similar entities would be forced to close. The announcement came as a shock to bar owners, as it was the first they’d heard of the new plan. The decision was made after Ada County saw the largest rate of COVID-19 increase in Idaho since the state recorded its first case back in March. Despite the dramatic increase in the number of cases, some bar owners feel they are being singled out.

“I think the general attitude is that we’re getting no direction that helps us save our business, and so everybody’s just kind of fed up,” said Ted Challenger, owner of StrangeLove, Dirty Little Roddy’s and Amsterdam Lounge. “It seems like the bars are taking the largest brunt.”

According to Challenger, the forced closure will further strain his businesses, which he has decided will remain closed until Thursday, Sept. 1, at the earliest. Challenger said he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of cohesion between city, county and state leaders when coming up with a reopening plan. He also said the bars should receive federal or state funding to remain closed.

“We hired people back on for this and they came off their unemployment. Now we have to put them back on unemployment. That’s not fair to our employees,” Challenger said. “So we have to really close down to keep our sanity... We need funding to survive. It’s too much.”

According to CDH project manager Brandon Atkins, after CDH spoke to bar owners about working to slow the spread, the COVID-19 numbers which came in continued to spike at even more alarming rates—Ada County saw a sharp rise of 275 new COVID-19 cases in one week, contributing to a 500% increase in cases corresponding with the latest stages of the economic reopening. The CDH Board of Health felt it had to make a decision quickly and couldn’t gamble on leaving the bars open for another two or three weeks. The board had discussions with both the State Department of Health and Welfare and the governor’s office before ultimately making the decision on June 20, to close the bars, distilleries, breweries and bar tops in restaurants.

“We really didn’t have tons of time that we were making this available to people. The board made this decision on Saturday afternoon, I found out late last night that this was going to be announced this morning,” CDH project manager Brandon Atkins said. “The only heads up that we gave was that the risk was imminent, and unless things changed we were going to have to make further action by necessity and that’s what the Board of Health decided.”

The COVID-19 cluster associated with downtown Boise bars first numbered 10 cases, but by the end of the week of June 17, it grew rapidly to reach over 150 cases. Epidemiologists in charge of contact tracing at Central District Health have worked through the COVID-19 pandemic, but the surge in workload for the team has caused it to put its investigations into other diseases on the back burner.

According to Atkins, epidemiologists at CDH are responsible for the investigations of over 70 other diseases in their jurisdiction. On the week of June 17, the district’s first 2020 case of rabies was found in a bat, but Atkins said the COVID-19 cluster associated with the downtown bars and surges of cases in CDH’s jurisdiction have made staying on top of the other diseases like E. coli, norovirus and giardia more difficult.

“While they’re not any less important, it’s been very challenging to keep up with those because we have so many other COVID-19 cases that are coming in and we know how rapidly it’s spreading throughout our community,” Atkins said. “It can be crazy on days where you have hundreds of cases coming in that you’re dealing with, or it can be a little lighter.”

Atkins also said that the work done with COVID-19 contact tracing has shed a lot of light on how increase of transmission varies between different environments. While over 150 COVID-19 cases have been linked back to bars, zero cases have been linked back to recent mass gatherings, protests and vigils, some of which attracted thousands of people.

According to Atkins, the difference is all in the behaviors engaged in at each gathering. In bars, people are often close together indoors, and talking loudly amongst each other without face masks. At the June 2 vigil for George Floyd—which greatly exceeded permitted gathering numbers—most people wore face masks and practiced social distancing while listening to presenters.

Atkins said the shut down had nothing to do with what the bar owners did wrong; rather, it was the behavior of the patrons—not wearing face masks and coming out in droves—that made leaving the bars open so risky.

“What we’ve seen across the board is a large portion of the population that’s in these particular settings, was not willing to adhere to some of those guidance rules,” Atikins said, “and we have to make an impact that will affect our entire community knowing that, unfortunately, there are some ramifications to business owners.”

Bars might not be the only businesses forced to walk back on the path to reopening. Atkins said if CDH starts to see challenges with restaurant employees and servers contracting the virus, it may have to evaluate restaurant dining rooms being open, as well.

“People need to know it is not going away and it’s not done and the pandemic is not over,” Atkins said. “We don’t want businesses to not be able to operate. But if the patrons who go to those businesses put that business in jeopardy because they’re unwilling to take some additional precautions, we’re going to see this continue in our community for some time, and it’s unfortunate because it will be a breaking point for some of our local businesses.”

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