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Reopening of Boise bars tied to schools’ coronavirus category by Central District Health

Families in Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties should not expect their schools to be classified in the lowest level of coronavirus risk at any point during the 2020-21 school year, Central District Health officials announced.
Posted at 7:46 PM, Sep 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-03 21:46:46-04

This article was originally published by Ruth Brown in the Idaho Statesman.

Central District Health’s Board of Health voted unanimously Thursday evening unanimously to allow some Boise bars to reopen — but not until schools are in a less restrictive category and can have in-person classes, and even then the bars will face serious restrictions.

The decision came after the owners of 12 bars hired an attorney and filed a petition for Central District Health and its director, Russ Duke. In June, the Board of Health voted to close Ada County bars, moving the county back to a modified Stage 3, after an outbreak of coronavirus cases contributed to patrons at some downtown Boise locations.

The bars that filed the petition are Tom Grainey’s, Silly Birch, Whiskey Bar, The Fireside Inn, Atlas, The Torch Lounge, Torch 2, Jim’s Alibi, The End Zone, Mulligans/Olympic, Cactus Bar and 8th Street Entertainment (Karma and 8th Street Social Club). Defense attorney David Leroy represented the bar owners.

Since the Board of Health shut down bars, about eight Boise businesses have adapted by getting food licenses to reopen, according to Duke. Those serving food have to operate the same way restaurants are during the COVID-19 pandemic, and operating circumstances would be very similar for the bars.

Leroy said the petition was not just to help the bars from an economic standpoint.

“We approach you seeking to be a full partner in protecting the public heath moving forward,” Leroy said.

Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo addressed the fact that all schools in Ada County are still considered red, or Category 3, and a high risk for transmission, so the recommendation is that they not open for in-person classes.

“If we can’t have school, I’m really wondering how we can have bars,” she said.

Board member Dr. Ted Epperly voiced similar sentiments.

The first motion made to reopen bars as soon as possible followed the petition submitted by Leroy and the bars. It failed in a 2-3 vote, with Valley County Commissioner Elt Hasbrouck and Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Elmore County, voting in favor.

Lachiondo made a second motion to allow the bars to open when schools are moved to yellow, or Category 2, which allows for in-person learning. That motion passed 5-0.

Duke indicated earlier in the meeting, when he recommended that the original motion pass, that data are pointing to Ada County’s school districts being moved to yellow by Central District as early as next week. But that remains to be seen.

The bars that petitioned would have to limit their occupancy to 50% if their max capacity is less than 200 people. They also would allow entrance and exit through only one door, to keep an accurate count of patrons. Social gatherings in Ada County are still limited to 10 people, so large groups would not be able to visit the bars together.

Masks would have to be worn by patrons unless they are eating or drinking at their table. While waiting to get in, entering and exiting, placing an order and going to the restroom, customers would have to wear face coverings.

Dance floors would be closed, as would bar service, and employees would serve patrons at tables. Employees would also wear masks and would not be allowed to work when symptomatic of COVID-19. They would be screened for symptoms at the start of a shift.

Duke ponted out that the bars would be operating basically how restaurants are now. Each bar would have to submit a reopening plan that must be approved by Duke and CDH staff.

Epperly said he had concern about people waiting in long lines to get into bars, something that has been happening downtown already, and he noted that bar owners are responsible only for distancing inside.

“It’s problematic if we have 30 people stacked up waiting to get in,” Epperly said.

Leroy responded, saying each of the bars will have security staff responsible for making sure patrons distance themselves.

Lachiondo addressed the idea of limited operating hours, as some other states and localities have done. Many Boise restaurants have done this as well.

Leroy said he was confident that the bars could enforce restrictions at all hours that they operate, saying “an arbitrary cutoff has an economic impact” on his clients. Bars in Boise typically are allowed to be open till 2 a.m.

Leroy said he was told by the city of Boise’s attorney that the city agreed to support any decision Central District Health made on bars reopening.

Public testimony was not taken during the hearing. As of Thursday, the motion applies only to the 12 bars that petitioned and agreed to the public health plan.