County Health Department Greenlights Reopening of Bars
After months of closure and uncertainty, limited-service restaurants or bars will be allowed to reopen as early as Wednesday in Shelby County under a set of restrictions.
The Shelby County Health Department’s latest decision affects some 40 establishments whose state license gives them bar status and were ordered to close in July amid surging COVID cases and dwindling hospital capacity.
Some places, like the Silly Goose in Downtown Memphis, pivoted to carryout only. But owner, Daniel Masters, says he wasn’t sure how much longer the business could survive.
“This was a thrill because we’re not used to good news at this point,” he says.
Reopened bars will have the same restrictions as full-service restaurants—no bar seating, alcohol can only be served at tables with an accompanying food order, a 10 p.m. close and a two-hour cap on service.
“I can guarantee you that the staff are going to be even more adamant about safety because they don’t want to go through this again,” Masters says.
Clubs, beer pubs, wine bars and taprooms, as well as hookah and vaping lounges were also allowed to reopen under the latest health directive, which outlines more specific restrictions for the lounges.
Local transmission of the virus peaked in July, with the number of new infections retreating in mid-August. Officials said they wanted to wait until a few weeks after the Labor Day holiday and the reopening of some schools and athletics in the county to re-evaluate restrictions.
Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter said Tuesday that there has not been a “marked increase” in pediatric cases since schools began reopening despite specific outbreaks, forcing some schools to temporarily revert to online learning.
Haushalter pointed to a current surplus of testing and stable hospital capacity, which helped inform the decision to open. Staffing increases at the health department, which allows for better contact tracing, also played a role.
“We have actually added not only a lot of capacity to be able to respond if there is an outbreak associated with one bar, but we also have new data sets that allow us to more timely identify if there’s an outbreak or transmission associated with a specific bar,” she said.
However, Haushalter also noted that cases have trended upwards since Labor Day and the reproductive rate of the virus, which informs officials how many people each new case is infecting, is now above one.
While the average case count over the past week meets conditions that the department identified earlier this summer to take action to reopen bars, a "trip wire" document to open them also calls for a reproductive rate below one.