SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's new mask mandate in response to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases is not expected to have as big an impact on bars and restaurants as the newly mandated earlier closing time.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert Sunday ordered a statewide mask mandate and halted activities and casual social gatherings starting Monday and running through Nov. 23. Another restriction included in the two-week mandate period may have the most significant economic impact on local businesses.
When announced on Sunday, the order originally required bars and restaurants to close no later than 10 p.m. Both are also required to seat separate household groups at least 6 feet away from each other — something most establishments across the state have already been doing.
The decree was amended on Monday to allow bars to remain open past 10 p.m. but not serve alcohol. Private companies, like dance or martial arts studios, can stay open as long as they adhere to physical distancing rules and wear face masks.
For many businesses, the coronavirus outbreak has caused significant financial hardship, and some fear the early closure directive will only make an already difficult situation even more challenging.
"When the bar was running at capacity, we were averaging on Friday and Saturday night about 1,000 people a night through the door," explained Michael Repp, spokesman for The Sun Trapp — a bar and dance club in Salt Lake City. "COVID hit, we closed for 42 days and then we reopened at less than one-third of our capacity."
That reduction in capacity was a "huge impact" financially, he said. Now with the new limit on operations, the night club stands to also lose four hours of its prime money-making time. Repp says the latest directive could result in some unintended, unwanted and potentially dangerous consequences.
"All they've done is they have now taken that nighttime component of COVID — of people being comfortably socially distanced in a bar, socially distant in public wearing masks, following the rules in our business, at least," he said. "They have now forced a different crowd who is not adhering to the rules, who doesn't want to listen, who doesn't have the familiar behaviors of our business, (and) they've now forced them to find new places to be that could be underground parties, parking garage parties or bars that they've never been to before."
Repp said more businesses could find themselves on the brink of permanent closure if the mandated hours extend beyond the initially-planned two-week period.
Since March, the state has lost an estimated 450 establishments as a result of the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Utah Restaurant Association.
"In March, April and the first two weeks of May when the governor closed dining rooms, restaurant employment went from 109,000 people to 63,000 people," said Restaurant Association President Melva Sine. "And since the governor opened dining rooms on just the weekend before Mother's Day, between then and now we have built the industry back up to 93,000 people employed in the restaurant industry."
She said another extended period of restricted operations could be disastrous to the industry. "If we don't take care of these restaurants, there are going to be no jobs for people to go back to," she added.
"The restaurant food service industry is classified as essential services, but when we can just do takeout, delivery and curbside, (as a business owner) I only need a couple of employees to do that at most," Sine explained. "But that business is limited to quality of food and to delivery time. There's just so many things that will depend on that being successful, and it won't sustain a restaurant for the long haul."
She said some legislative funding will likely be needed to help businesses and individual employees stay afloat in the near term. But whether that will happen locally or nationally through congress is yet to be determined.
Sine noted that prior to the pandemic, Utah's restaurant industry had been experiencing dramatic growth over the last several years, but that economic prosperity is now threatened for thousands of Utahns whose lives depend on the restaurant sector to survive.
When it comes to the economic system, it's only two weeks, but two weeks can still be painful.
–Andrew Keinsley, Weber State University economics professor
"We've had double-figure growth for the last eight to 10 years, so all of these things are alarming," she said. "When you talk about people's livelihoods, for every one of these people, their job is essential to their life."
Economic analysts contend that the mandates could have been quite useful had they been implemented in the early stages of the outbreak, as health experts had suggested. But this latest response to massive increases in COVID-19 cases can still potentially provide some long-run benefit, though it won't be easy in the near-term.
"Trying to slow things down for about two weeks so that we can implement new testing programs, that's really a good idea. It's probably something we should have been doing already," said Weber State University economics professor Andrew Keinsley. "When it comes to the economic system, it's only two weeks, but two weeks can still be painful."
He acknowledged that many extracurricular activities for school students will be negatively impacted as they are forced to shut down during the two-week mandate period, affecting scores of individuals employed in the industry.
"The places that are running dance classes, that are running the swim lessons, that are running a lot of these extracurricular activities, are they going to have to shut down for two weeks? And that's going to be two weeks of revenue that they're not getting," Keinsley said. "It'll be painful, especially for some of these smaller businesses."
He said the governor made the point of saying that everything outside the mandate restrictions is going to be business as usual, which should limit some of the negative impact.
"Do I expect a large economic hit? Probably not. But that doesn't mean that everyone's going to be fine — there's still going to be some pain," Keinsley said. "But hopefully this is going to be one of those situations where in the long run, it's worth the cost that we can finally figure out what's going on and get (the virus spread) somewhat under control so that we don't have huge spikes (and) we don't have huge problems when the holidays come around. In the long run especially, that's going to be very useful."