By Daniel Farber Huang
July 8, 2020
“One of the cafes had the brilliant idea of putting up a slogan: ‘The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine,’ which confirmed an already prevalent opinion that alcohol is a safeguard against infectious disease. Every night, toward two a.m., quite a number of drunken men, ejected from the cafes, staggered down the streets, vociferating optimism.”
Although the above scene sounds like it could be Miami Beach, the Jersey Shore, or any number of pubs in London this week, it’s from Albert Camus’s story The Plague, published in 1947 about, well, a plague decimating the fictional city of Oran located in France.
Back then, 73 years ago, Durer, a French philosopher, author and journalist, imagined what his contemporaries would do during a pandemic. It appears they would likely go out,and get either a little tipsy or staggeringly inebriated.
History loves to repeat itself, it would appear.
Just a few days ago, on June 29, New Jersey Gov. Jim Murphy said at a press conference that the scheduled reopening of indoor dining at restaurants would be indefinitely delayed due to uncontrolled gatherings at recently reopened outdoor bars.
Murphy said, “The carelessness of one establishment can completely undo the good work of many others. We will not tolerate outlier bars and restaurants and, frankly, patrons who think the rules don't apply to them. They are the ones who are ruining it for everyone else.”
Murphy said his decision was driving by news reports on overcrowded outdoor bars and gatherings, a complete disregard for social distancing, and very few, if any, face coverings by patrons.
“Unfortunately the national situation compounded by instances of knucklehead behavior here at home are requiring us to hit pause on the restart of indoor dining for the foreseeable future,” Murphy said.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said “instances of knucklehead behavior here at home are requiring us to hit pause on the restart of indoor dining for the foreseeable future.” June 29, 2020. (Image capture from NJ.gov Youtube video)
Across the U.S., there were numerous scenes of packed social gatherings, including over the 4th of July holiday weekend.
Across the Atlantic, England allowed pubs to reopen on July 4 for the first time since March.
According to CNN, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged drinkers to behave responsibly, but footage over the weekend showed large crowds outside city pubs with no social distancing and few revelers wearing masks.
Just a few days later, several pubs in England were forced to close down again after several patrons tested positive for COVID-19
The “pub” - whose name is derived from Public House - gained popularity in England after the Black Death, according to AtlasObscura.com. By the time the Plague arrived in England in 1348, drinking beer was commonplace but “amateurish,” according to the travel website. Back then, ale was mostly sold out of people’s homes.
According to “Man Walks Into A Pub: A Sociable History of Beer” by Pete Brown cited by Atlas Obscura, by the 1370s, the Black Death had caused a critical labor shortage given that about 50 percent of the population perished due to the plague. Those remaining could command higher wages and achieved higher standards of living. Alehouses became more commercialized, permanent establishments with better ale and better food.
“Gradually, commercial brewers started to build bigger houses that became busy meeting places, hence the term ‘public house’ … If you look at pubs today, you can see the community aspect that is the legacy of the alehouse … and the tavern tradition of spending the evening with your peers getting slowly rat-arsed and talking about nothing with increasing conviction as the night wears on,” Brown said.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic (often misleadingly called the “Spanish Flu”), pubs in England appeared to continue operating, according to Dr. James Kneale, who teaches cultural and historical geography at the University of London, in a May 5 article in the English pub-trade news site Morning Advertiser.
“Taverns certainly did not come close to shutting down during this period,” Kneale said.
To combat COVID-19, the CDC has issued guidance for bars and restaurants to operate. The CDC warns that the more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. The risk of COVID-19 spread also increases depending on the venue’s physical arrangement.
Apart from staying away entirely, the CDC considers the lowest risk environment to be one where food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick up. Risk increases as on-site dining is added, either indoor or outdoor, even when tables are six feet apart.
The CDC’s considers the highest risk environment to include “on-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart.”
While going to a bar and enjoying a drink may provide comfort and social fulfillment to patrons, it does not provide medical reinforcement against COVID-19.
According to the World Health Organization’s Mythbusters webpage, “FACT: Drinking alcohol does not protect you against COVID-19 and can be dangerous. The harmful use of alcohol increases your risk of health problems.”
An April 20 article on MedPageToday.com reports that drinking alcohol, such as 120 proof (or 60 percent alcohol-content) liquors like vodka or rum, does not disinfect inside the body. Outside the body, however, they can disinfect against COVID-19 similar to a cleaning solution.
With liquors, the alcohol component is actually ethanol, which get broken down in the liver and eventually expelled by the body. Drinking copious amounts does not leave your insides safer from COVID-19, but it may leave you with a hangover.
Drinking rubbing alcohol does not work either. According to the MedPageToday.com article, a 35-year-old man, identified only as “CB”, feared he was infected with COVID-19 so decided to drink a bottle of rubbing alcohol after doing “research” [my quotes] on the internet.
Rubbing alcohol is different from liquor and contains isopropyl alcohol, not ethanol. What CB may not have realized was that his liver, like all human livers are designed to do, would convert rubbing alcohol into acetone, which is the chemical name for nail polish remover.
Acetone -- nail polish remover -- causes “mild nervous system effects,” according to the article. CB’s mother found him on the floor unconscious, called 911 and he was brought to the hospital in a coma. With supportive care, he woke up a day later and was released back into the wild.
Bars and restaurants are exploring new avenues to get drinks in the hands of their customers, wherever those customers might be. Thanks to numerous food deliver services, bars and restaurants today are trying new options that weren’t available in previous years or during prior pandemics, including cocktail delivery directly to people’s homes.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, currently more than 30 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of to-go, pick up, or delivery of cocktails or distilled spirits from restaurants or bars as a temporary response to COVID-19’s shutting down much of the hospitality industry. Several states including Texas, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, Iowa, the District of Columbia and others are considering either extending or making these policies permanent.
How diners and drinkers act in the coming months remains to be seen. According to a June 17 Nation’s Restaurant News article, consumers’ desire to dine-in at establishments is high. With the exception of visiting family and friends, consumers miss going out to restaurants most. Still, the economic hardships many people are facing today, including unemployment, remains high, which will draw out the uncertainty of achieving a post-COVID normalcy.
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