Q: Massachusetts has just instituted 9:30pm curfews. What is the rationale for this restriction? Does closing restaurants and bars early really help curb the spread of COVID-19?
A: There is a strong basis for targeting the hospitality industry for COVID-related restrictions. But if curfews are applied in isolation, they are unlikely to do much good. In reality, however, curfews are not usually applied in isolation; they are often part of a set of restrictions that can complement each other to reduce risk of transmission.
With much of the country experiencing alarming rises in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, many officials have implemented curfews as one approach to control the spread of disease. But as the hospitality industry continues to reel financially from the pandemic, many owners have pushed back against these directives.
Why hospitality venues?
A recently published study using mobile-phone data to map people’s movements indicates that crowded indoor venues (e.g. restaurants, gyms, cafes, etc.) account for most COVID-19 infections in US cities. This is consistent with findings from contact tracing studies around the world that identify indoor venues as locations of superspreader events whereby a large number of people are infected at once, and then spread the infection to other household members.
Restaurants and bars are sites of increased risk for COVID because of the largely indoor setting, limited use of masks especially while eating and drinking, and the tendency to engage in behaviors like talking or shouting (or singing!) which considerably increase the risk of infection. Add alcohol into the mix and we have a recipe for a superspreader event.
Given the public’s limited appetite for a full lockdown, officials have been trying to adopt a more targeted approach which means focusing on those locations responsible for the majority of spread.
But why a curfew?
The move is aimed at closing restaurants and bars earlier in the night to reduce the likelihood of alcohol-induced risk-taking behaviors, which make it more difficult for people to adhere to important safety measures. As Dr. Linda Bauld, professor of public health at Edinburgh University notes (see linked article), “The longer people are in these venues, the more they probably let their guard down and the mix of social distancing and alcohol is not a good one despite the best efforts of pubs and venue owners.” However critics of curfews argue that people will just engage in high-risk activities earlier in the evening. It might also force people to engage in all the same risky behaviors, just in venues like private parties instead of restaurants or bars.
Curfews are less costly in economic terms than a full shutdown of hospitality venues. Business can at least generate some revenue during the restricted hours. Logistically, curfews are also easier to enforce compared to other measures. When applied in conjunction with other safety measures like limiting capacity in indoor venues, maintaining physical distance among patrons, and mandating mask use whenever possible, curfews can serve as a complementary strategy.
Nevertheless, curfews represent more of an intermediate step in efforts to reduce transmission. A much more effective approach would involve bailing out business owners so that they can remain closed for an extended period of time, with restaurants offering only takeout and delivery options. But given the limited support for this approach among federal policymakers, local officials feel compelled to choose among second-best options. In the end, curfews might confer some public health benefit, in conjunction with other measures, until longer-term strategies can be implemented to ultimately get the virus under control.
Study using mobile phone data to track mobility
Articles on curfews and COVID: