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States Enact Virtual Modern-Day Prohibition over COVID-19 Fears

Several states are shutting down bars and restaurants, and more are likely to follow their example.

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, states are ordering the closure of bars and restaurants, as the nation battles the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). California, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington state announced over the weekend that establishments will be closed for in-person dining but can remain open for deliveries, curbside pick-ups, and drive-through services.

Tuesday is St. Patrick’s Day, one of the busiest annual holidays for bars and restaurants. This year, however, it looks like people will be getting corned beef and cabbage delivered to their homes instead of merrymaking with friends at the local pub, sharing rounds of giant mugs of green ale. What does this mean for local small businesses and their employees, and is this even constitutional?

Chad Kerst is the head bar manager at Pendleton’s in west-central Indiana. Even though his state lawmakers have, so far, not resorted to the same policies, Kerst is concerned about the impact it will have:

“In the service industry, it’s hard enough to ensure our people we are taking all precautions in this pandemic. Now with these shutdowns of states, including our neighbor states, we have to fear a shortage of supplies in taking care of our regular folks – let alone neighbors across state lines – our mom and pop places can’t afford a moratorium on work. Panic is placing all small business in jeopardy.”

As of March 15, Ohio had 37 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Illinois has 93, and Massachusetts was at 164. Those aren’t exactly high numbers, though, when compared to New York, California, and Washington state, which have the highest infected populations. Beginning March 16, Illinois establishments will remain closed until March 30.  In Ohio, the ban started March 15, and no end date was available. Massachusetts begins its closures on St. Patrick’s Day, and the policy will remain in effect through April 17. Washington state will adhere to the closures until March 30.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker decided on the restrictions after residents continued to participate in social events over the weekend despite the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation to use “social distancing” and to self-isolate. “There are no easy decisions left to make as we address this unprecedented crisis,” Pritzker said. “As your governor, I can’t allow the gravity of these decisions from taking the measures that the science and experts say will keep people safe.”

Other states have also joined in on the ban but with less strict measures. Nashville Mayor John Cooper has asked bars to close on Lower Broadway and has restricted restaurant capacity. In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said all restaurants would need to close by 9 pm, and bars and nightclubs will need to end business by midnight. The capacity for these businesses will be limited to 50% of the usual thresholds.

Some efforts are being made to help employees who will suffer financially from these closures. In Ohio, those who have been quarantined by their employer or a health professional will be able to collect unemployment benefits, foregoing the usual week waiting period.

Business owners will find some relief, too, but will it be enough? They will clearly be losing a lot of money – especially if they don’t have the capability for drive-throughs and deliveries – and the holiday loss will only add to their financial woes. Do state governments have the legal authority to force the closure of businesses? Liberty Nation’s legal affairs editor Scott D. Cosenza said it’s likely that they do:

“Bars especially enjoy unique status in the law because of our history regarding alcohol and the 21st Amendment, which gave states extraordinary power to regulate it. Because food services involve the potential of massive damage to the public if unsafe, state governments have enjoyed wide powers there as well. As outlined, I suspect these practices will be held lawful.”

As local governments scramble to contain the virus, more are likely to follow the example of the states mentioned above, with others placing some form of restrictions on these types of establishments. Are they prudent, or will small businesses be forced to commit financial suicide because of unnecessary alarmism?

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Read more from Kelli Ballard.

Read More From Kelli Ballard

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