Is it time to stop going to bars?

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A photo I took of people waiting at Franklin’s a few years ago. Is this really the type of gathering we want to encourage now?

Austin schools are closed. UT and ACC have moved online. NYC has shut down Broadway. So are our local leaders going to back off their previous plea for residents to go out and party?

“Now is the time to go to restaurants, go to clubs,” said Mayor Steve Adler in a joint video with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Kirk Watson six days ago in an attempt to mitigate the economic damage done by the cancellation of SXSW.

On March 10, Austin Public Health Interim Medical Director Mark Escott assured Adler that his reasoning was correct. “Absolutely,” he said, when Adler asked him if it is true that the virus is not a reason for people to go out to enjoy the local nightlife. Events that are not drawing out-of-town visitors are not a major concern, said Escott, “because we don’t have a local spread.”

These were my thoughts last night:

And yet, as recently as yesterday local media and public officials repeatedly stated that there were no confirmed cases in Austin as if the city might be spared. But we of course won’t be spared. It’s a global pandemic.

Indeed, at the 6 a.m. news conference organized this morning in response to the first two confirmed cases in Austin, the mayor stated that everybody expected there to be local cases; that it was only a matter of time. However, nobody who spoke –– Escott, Eckhardt, Adler –– described any new precautions people should take beyond what they had already advised about hand-washing and staying home if you feel sick. They did not walk back their comments from six days ago urging people to go out to bars and restaurants.

The predictable fuss from the media about the two cases this morning misses the point: there are almost certainly far more cases already in the community because a) that’s how pandemics work and b) WE DON’T HAVE ANY TESTS!!!!

I’ll defer to Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. From the WaPo reporting on his remarks to Congress Wednesday:

“We must be much more serious as a country about what we might expect,” Fauci said. Even places that have little or no known community transmission at the moment need to take action to try to limit infections, he said: “A couple of cases today are going to be many, many cases tomorrow.”

While everybody agrees that “social distancing,” both mandated and voluntary, is the most effective way to slow the spread of the disease, there are definitely different opinions about what degree of isolation people should adopt (or be forced to adopt). The Atlantic interviewed three public health experts, all of whom offered slightly different answers about what activities one should avoid.

So is it right for our city leaders, justifiably concerned about the wellbeing of the economy, to tell people to go out and enjoy restaurants and bars? Or for the Austin Justice Coalition to hold a pub crawl to support local business? Meanwhile, Belgium just shut down bars and restaurants

I don’t envy the position of local leaders at this moment. There couldn’t have been a worse time for a pandemic than mid-March. The loss of SXSW is economically disastrous and it’s understandable that local leaders are worried about further damage to the local economy.

The problem is, the economic damage will be far worse if we fail to take the necessary measures to slow the spread of the virus. We are heading into a recession. It is unavoidable that the global, national and local economy will suffer as communities grapple with the disease. The extent of the economic damage will depend on the extent to which we are able to slow the spread of the disease.

The preventative measures are going to hurt. There’s no doubt. But we may be hurting much worse if we fail to take them.

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