Madison Health Officials Close Bars Ahead Of Holiday Weekend

Crowded College Bars Prompt Revised Order That Limits Bars To Outdoor Patio Service Only, Reduces Restaurant Capacities

State Street in downtown Madison
Richard Hurd (CC BY)

Alarmed by an increase in COVID-19 cases, particularly among young people, Dane County health officials are rolling back recently permitted activities to try to prevent further spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Under a revised public health order which goes into effect July 2 at 8 a.m., bars will be closed for indoor seating, although customers can be outside. Takeout is permitted.

Under the order, indoor restaurant capacity will also be scaled back to 25 percent capacity.

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Scenes of crowded college bars in downtown Madison were confirmed as a one likely source of infection at a press conference on Wednesday.

“For the past week, Dane County has seen a sustained, high number of cases. After consultation with our contact tracing team, gatherings and visits to bars and restaurants continue to be implicated in interviews with cases,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County. “We are acting now to immediately curb this increase in cases and protect the health and safety of our community.”

College towns across Wisconsin like La Crosse and Oshkosh have also seen a spike in cases of COVID-19. Dane County health officials said at the press conference that they are working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to change behavior, and will also have a social media campaign targeted at young people.

The new order does not require masks although people are urged to wear them.

In just two weekends, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said the level of community spread has jumped from 24 percent to 37 percent. The average age of those with coronavirus in Dane County has dropped to 23 years old.

“We cannot keep moving in this direction,” she said at the Alliant Energy Center, a public testing site for Dane County. “It is clear that alcohol and coronavirus do not mix. People don’t make responsible decisions when crowding into a bar or partying on a Saturday night. That’s why new public health orders are so important.”

In mid-June, Dane County moved to Phase 2 of its reopening plan, Forward Dane. Shortly thereafter there was a large increase in coronavirus cases. From June 20 through June 26, local health officials say 482 individuals tested positive for COVID-19, which was the highest total of any seven day period so far.

Graph courtesy of WisContext

Nearly 60 percent of those who tested positive for the virus are age 20-29 and almost half those interviewed by contact tracers said they had attended a gathering, party or meeting with people from outside their household. The biggest cluster of cases has been linked to bars.

The Tavern League of Wisconsin contends that the new local health order is invalid under a previous state Supreme Court decision striking down the statewide “Safer at Home” order issued by Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm.

“Dane County tavern owners have had their businesses closed/restricted for over 100 days. These unlawful orders are causing irreparable financial harm to their small businesses, families and employees while other businesses continue to operate in the county,” Tavern League Wisconsin President Chris Marsicano said in a statement.

The Tavern League blamed the spike in cases on increased testing and protests in Madison but local health officials said only about a dozen cases were linked to large demonstrations against police brutality.

Texas recently ordered bars to close and reduced indoor restaurant seating in response to spikes of COVID-19 there.