Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
A waitress at Dog Haus Biergarten Bethesda sprays down a chair with a disinfectant. (Robb Hill/For the Washington Post)

When a crowd of mostly young customers walked under the awning of Caddies on Cordell in Bethesda on Friday night, they were stopped by masked security guards, who took their temperatures under a big, white-lettered “Caddies” sign.

As it got busier, other guards roamed through the bar, reminding customers to wear masks when they left their tables.

But then two tables full of 20-somethings scooted together to form one large table of nine — over the six-person limit.

Inside, Luke Johnson and Taylor Green, both 22, had to raise their voices to hear each other at their booth, one of only a few occupied inside — the DJ whom Caddies owner Ronnie Heckman hired for the night was mixing right near them.

Green, of Cumberland, said it was fine — the booth was comfortable, and, anyway, she felt the risks of infection had been exaggerated. Her friend, a 24-year-old man from Fairfax County who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to be judged for his views on the novel coronavirus, agreed.

“We can never get rid of this,” her friend said of the virus. “Isn’t this the point? We have to go out and open up eventually.”

Last week, the governors of Maryland and Virginia raised concerns about enforcement of pandemic rules, such as masks and social distancing, at bars and restaurants — with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) noting in a letter to county officials that the coronavirus positivity rate among Marylanders under 35 is on the rise.

Maryland county to enforce safety requirements as region’s virus caseload marches upward

The Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars, has been sending its members daily reminders to comply with the rules.

“Hopefully everyone heeds the warning,” said Jack Milani, the group’s legislative chairman. “We want to be open and support the governor’s call for enforcement.”

Indoor bars and restaurants have become breeding grounds for coronavirus in the United States as places around the nation slowly reopen. (Video: The Washington Post)

Heckman said he was doing what he can to follow the rules officials put in place during the pandemic. But, he said, when Caddie’s gets particularly busy — as it was in the venue’s outdoor space Friday night — and as the drinks start flowing, it can be hectic.

“Look, people are frustrated. I get it,” he said of having to remind customers of the guidelines. “People feel like they’re trapped.”

And several young patrons out at bars last week in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties said they felt unfairly singled out by the admonishments about going out drinking.

“A lot of people have been concerned with young people spreading the virus, and they’ll reprimand you for it,” said Liam Comen, a 21-year-old Towson University student who was having a drink with dinner Wednesday at Dog Haus Biergarten Bethesda. “Just because you care doesn’t mean I have to follow your rules. If I don’t get near you, why does it matter?”

They got tested for coronavirus. Now, they wait. Growing delays have put lives in limbo.

Young patrons at bars last week gave a variety of reasons for still going out during the pandemic. Many said they lived alone or with other young people and felt they’d be unaffected if they did contract the virus.

But experts fear the activity at bars — which can feature poor ventilation and loud music, leading to shouting that could send virus-laden droplets into the air — could lead to further spread of the virus.

“In indoor bars, typically people are close together for long periods of time,” said Thomas V. Inglesby, the director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security. “It’s loud, so people are using their voices loudly, which spreads the virus.”

Inglesby warned that the pandemic is “not over.”

“This epidemic is accelerating,” he said. “Young people are contributing to that spread. I would advise against going to a bar at this point.”

At Cornerstone Grill and Loft in College Park, which has both signs and workers reminding customers of the six-person-per-table limit as they walk through the fenced patio, social distancing and mask-wearing were enforced Friday night — but some adjacent high-top tables had more or less merged, with unmasked patrons standing next to their tables and chatting.

Across the buzzing room, where loud pop music played, Nathan Shams, 21, a senior at the University of Maryland, said he’d still be comfortable if the bar was even more packed — shoulder-to-shoulder, as it normally would be on a weekend night.

Since returning to College Park recently, he’s been seeing friends at various houses and going to parties.

“I don’t feel like I’d be affected by the virus. I’m desensitized,” said Shams, who also said he knows several people who have contracted the coronavirus. “I do my job — I wear a mask when it’s necessary at grocery stores.”

Steven Ashley and Napoleon Alexander Olivia-Portillo, construction workers in their early 30s enjoying happy hour at R.J. Bentley’s in College Park after work Wednesday, said they are living their lives the same way they always have.

“I can’t live scared,” Olivia-Portillo said as he took a sip of his beer, a Corona in a glass bottle. “If you’re meant to get this s---, then you’re meant to get this s---.”

Inglesby, who has advised Hogan on reopening plans, disagreed. He pleaded with young bargoers to wear masks and consider the rest of the community before deciding to go out.

“They don’t live in a protected bubble. Protect not just your health but that of your neighbors who are older or have underlying medical conditions,” Inglesby said. “Young people have a lot of power to dictate what’s going to happen next.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Nathan Shams.

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