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Bars in Athens, Georgia, opened back up on Monday, June 1, 2020. Many bars and restaurants in Athens have been closed for the past two months due to COVID-19. However with Governor Kemp permitting bars to reopen at 35% capacity, Allgood Lounge has chosen to open its doors with a posted safety notice warning customers of the precautions they should take. (Photo/Sophie Yaeger)

Cinnaholic, Mama Jewel’s Kitchen and Gyro Wrap have joined a growing number of restaurants and bars that closed for good during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Athens Mayor and Commission voted to move last call for bars to 10 p.m., although enforcement has been temporarily suspended by a judge. Bars are hot spots for virus transmission, but restrictions like Georgia’s run the risk of putting them out of business permanently.

Any new federal stimulus package should include a program to rescue bars and restaurants in danger of closing permanently. In February, the National Restaurant Association projected that the restaurant industry would supply over 15 million jobs in 2020. It’s a lynchpin of local economies, especially in college towns like Athens, where food service makes up 12.8% of all jobs. Mass closures would affect a vast swath of America’s working population and cause reverberating effects across the economy as businesses in other sectors lose revenue and the ability to pay their employees.

While it’s hardly settled science, researchers have learned a lot about COVID-19 since it first began spreading. For instance, the risk of contracting the virus while outside appears to be small, so long as everyone wears a mask and stays six feet apart. Polls show that between 15 and 26 million Americans have participated in Black Lives Matter protests in recent months, but the impact on virus transmission appears to have been minimal, although that is in part because non-protesters stayed home more often.

Indoors, however, is a different story. The World Health Organization acknowledged that the virus may linger in the air in indoor spaces. Recycled indoor air, the lack of direct sunlight and a more crowded environment all contribute to the increased indoor spread. This poses a danger to bars and restaurants, which often necessitate the presence of many people in an enclosed space.

Regardless of whether bars and restaurants stay open, Congress should allocate aid. The RESTART Act, proposed by Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Todd Young of Indiana, looks promising.

The act proposes a new loan program to cover six months of payroll, benefits and fixed operating expenses for small- and medium-sized businesses that have suffered a major revenue hit during the pandemic. Much of the debt would be forgiven depending on how much revenue declines, and unlike the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), it wouldn’t require businesses to pay employees if they weren’t actually open.

Even if the RESTART Act becomes law as currently written, it would not be enough. The proposal would help businesses, but specific action should be taken to protect workers and the unemployed. The $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit should be extended for the duration of the economic crisis.

The Senate does not appear to be taking action on either of these fronts. Last week, the Senate failed to reach a deal on new stimulus aid before the enhanced unemployment benefits ended. Especially in Athens, the danger of not achieving a deal is acute. The House of Representatives passed a sweeping relief bill in May. As soon as possible, the Senate should take up that bill and expand upon it with provisions from the RESTART Act.

There is a strong argument for shutting down bars and restaurants to help contain the spread of COVID-19. They’re sometimes poorly ventilated and often packed full of people, often drunk and ignoring social distancing guidelines. It is impossible to keep masks on while eating or drinking. Restaurants and bars should be shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but the government cannot ignore the needs of restaurant owners and workers. Congress must approve support for them so they can be financially secure while they close. The cost of failure would be catastrophic.

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