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Why Are U.S. Schools Closing But Not Bars?

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, U.S. leaders are shutting down schools but not bars and restaurants, a questionable strategy from a public health point of view — while Europe does the opposite, seemingly successfully bending the curve.

A student is seen on the steps of the closed public school PS 139 in the Ditmas Park neighborhood in Brooklyn of New York, the United States, Oct. 8, 2020. | Getty Images
A student is seen on the steps of the closed public school PS 139 in the Ditmas Park neighborhood in Brooklyn of New York, the United States, Oct. 8, 2020. | Getty Images

The U.S. hit a morbid milestone on Wednesday as the winter looms ahead: a quarter of a million Americans have now died from COVID-19, “passing the number Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted in March, with no sure end in sight,” The New York Times reported

The Times also reported that “researchers estimate that almost every American knows someone who has been infected, and that about a third of Americans know someone who has died.”

Europe, where some countries have seen even more severe outbreaks than America this fall, has been able to successfully bend the curve by doing the opposite of what U.S. cities and states are doing: leaving schools open but closing down bars and restaurants. Indoor dining remains open in some regions of America where schools are closed.

“I’m sure the Europeans didn’t want to restrict their activities any more than we do. Everyone is tired and ready for this to end, but we have to accept the reality of the data before us,” Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, said to The Times.

Another key difference between the European and American strategy is that European governments are giving financial aid to closed restaurants and bars, while the U.S. government has failed to do more on this front. The Senate has not passed additional financial assistance available in The CARES Act because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) won’t bring it to the floor for a vote.

Political clashes between the left and right are not unique to America, but the way the GOP in the U.S. has responded to the pandemic stands out. Republican elected officials are not providing needed assistance to small business owners in America, so mayors and governors feel pressured to allow partial indoor dining to help keep those businesses open; and then Republicans are turning around and chastising Democrats for saying people should stay home and not attend small gatherings while infection rates continue to soar.

Closing in-person schools vs. bars

New York City, home to the nation’s largest school system, announced Wednesday that it’s halting in-person classes at all public schools starting Thursday, November 19, as the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate hit 3%. Mayor Bill de Blasio had previously set 3 percent as the benchmark for closing schools—but many residents are outraged because the mayor is not closing gyms or indoor dining at bars and restaurants, which are operating at reduced capacity but are still considered higher-risk areas as vectors of the disease.

De Blasio said in a press conference that “no one is happy about this decision,” but that the city needs to stick to the standards it set. He added, “We intend to come back and come back as quickly as possible.” Schools will now transition to remote learning after having reopened for less than eight weeks.

There have been few reported cases of virus transmission among the New York City school system, which has been servicing approximately 300,000 in-person students since reopening.

Many people on Twitter pointed out the low effectiveness of such a strategy when trying to contain an outbreak—and that it’s not just NYC where this is happening:

While COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the region, the 3 percent positivity test rate (calculated as a rolling average over the previous 7 days) is low compared to harder-hit areas of the country. The city of Chicago, where residents have also been vocally unhappy with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pandemic decision-making, currently has a 15.5% positivity rate. In South Dakota, which currently has the worst outbreak in the nation, state officials say the positivity rate is over 21% — but the COVID Tracking Project puts the estimate much higher, at a shocking 60%, according to CNN.

So far, only a few states including Washington state, Michigan, Oregon, and New Mexico have shut down indoor dining in the U.S.—and from a public health point of view, there’s an unfortunate debate about whether people should have Thanksgiving gatherings next week. 

“After big Thanksgiving dinners, plan small Christmas funerals, health experts warn,” read one headline in the Mississippi Free Press, quoting state health officials who said:  “We don’t really want to see Mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her at Christmas.” And yet many conservatives and Republican elected officials are promoting the warped idea that this is all a Democratic plot to cancel Thanksgiving and that people should exercise their freedom, have friends and relatives over, and risk infecting them.

And yet, the reality is that Democratic mayors such as De Blasio and Lightfoot aren’t doing enough, according to public health experts. Anna North at Vox wrote: “Policymakers may be trading short-term economic damage for longer-term devastation, as an entire generation of working parents — the majority of them mothers — is forced to choose between getting a paycheck and caring for kids” with schools closed.

“It’s not the COVID pandemic that has harmed so many businesses,” but rather “our mismanagement of the COVID pandemic,” small business owner and economist Adam Ozimek told Vox.