If you have to party this festive season, don’t do it indoors

If you have to party this festive season, don’t do it indoors
Bars, clubs and taverns pose a particular risk for the spreading of Covid-19 as the country experiences its second wave of infections. (Illustrative image | Source: Naashon Zalk / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The festive season might feel delayed and dampened this year, but it’s finally arrived. Many people, particularly the youth, will flock to bars, clubs and taverns to celebrate, further risking the spread of the second wave of coronavirus infections. Experts have urged revellers to take caution and responsibility for their own health and those around them.

Police Minister Bheki Cele, along with SAPS and the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), raided the popular Sandton club Blackdoor Lifestyle Lounge and other venues in late October 2020, finding it had violated the Covid-19 regulations, opening past curfew and failing to implement physical distancing.

This week, the club advertised an event for Friday night, but the flyer included tags such as “day club”, “no mask, no entry” and “12pm to 10pm”.

Such bars, clubs and taverns pose a particular risk for the spreading of Covid-19 as the country experiences its second wave of infections because young people, in particular, want to party during the festive season.

On Thursday, 17 December the country recorded 9,126 new Covid-19 infections and 184 deaths, most of which were in Eastern Cape and Western Cape.

While announcing new lockdown restrictions this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said most new infections are among young people, and that social gatherings and parties are the largest sources of the outbreaks.

“In many of these gatherings, social distancing is not being observed, venues are crowded and not adequately ventilated, hand sanitiser is not readily available, and people are not wearing masks. Many people consume alcoholic drinks at these ‘super-spreader’ events, with the result that people become less careful about taking measures to protect themselves and prevent infection,” said the president.

Under the regulations, bars, taverns, shebeens and similar establishments are limited to 100 people at indoor gatherings and 250 people for outdoor gatherings.

If the venues are too small to ensure patrons observe 1.5 metres of physical distancing, they are restricted to 50% of capacity. They must close by 10pm so staff and patrons can return home for the 10pm curfew.

Nightclubs are officially banned from operating but many have recently reopened as “day clubs” and promote the relevant health and distancing guidelines, at least in their promotional material. There have been reports of venues such as bars locking their doors and shuttering their windows at 10pm for patrons to stay on until the curfew is lifted at 4am.

“The risk is very high for super-spreading where the venues are indoors. Due to the drinking, no masks are worn and social distancing is often not adhered to. Taxis are another major risk for transmission,” said Adjunct Professor Alex van den Heever, chair of social security systems administration and management studies at the Wits School of Governance.

“But government has not enforced proper mask-wearing and open windows. The risk of transmission posed by indoor drinking establishments and taxis vastly exceed the risk of super-spreading events at beaches, which are outdoors.”

Under the new regulations, beaches will be closed during the festive season in Eastern Cape and on the Garden Route in Western Cape while KwaZulu-Natal is closing beaches on certain days. The DA and Afriforum are challenging some of the closures in court.

Professor Benjamin Smart from the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge said, “I think the current regulations regarding bars and drinking hours are sensible. Closing the beaches is more controversial. Outdoor areas are less conducive to the spread of the virus.”

He said there were certain days when beaches are busy that might justify closure.

Van den Heever advised those who visit party spots to play it safe: “To manage the risk of super-spreading, the groups should be small. To address the risk of transmission, the events should be held either outdoors or in a well-ventilated setting. Mask-wearing should be adhered to when not eating or drinking. Social distancing should be maintained at all times.

“We will have to keep doing this until a vaccination strategy has been substantially implemented. This is only likely in 2022.”

Lockdown regulations include harsh penalties for venues that violate the law, making it an offence that can draw up to six months in prison or a fine. Police in Gauteng last weekend arrested the manager of a popular liquor outlet in Rietgat, Tshwane, for operating past prescribed opening hours and failing to adhere to regulations.

“The place was found packed with patrons who were not observing social distancing measures and not wearing masks, and four other liquor outlets were also closed down in Rietgat,” said Gauteng SAPS.

Some Johannesburg residents have already reported cancelling their holiday plans due to beach closures in parts of the Eastern Cape and Garden Route.

The city’s bars and clubs could see a busy festive season this year and JMPD spokesperson Wayne Minnaar said law enforcement officers will have their work cut out for them, particularly on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

He said the JMPD has not fined any establishments for violating regulations and is focusing instead on ensuring they close by 10pm and disperse patrons from the area.

“The approach at the moment is to encourage people to comply,” said Minnaar. “It could change. It could become more punitive but for now, it’s about getting people to comply.”

The country’s alcohol industry, which was hard hit during the ban on liquor sales in earlier iterations of the lockdown, has contributed R10-million to the Association of Alcohol Responsibility and Education to deploy 1,000 patrollers to monitor drinking establishments.

“The regulations are sufficient but depend substantially on voluntary compliance as it is near impossible to enforce the regulations in every setting. The loss of trust resulting from unfair enforcement and politicking encourages defiant conduct,” said Van den Heever.

Smart said, “The current regulations, if adhered to, will prevent large parties and ‘super-spreader’ events. Inevitably some people will contract Covid-19 in bars even with these regulations in place, but keeping businesses open so far as possible is also important. The effect on the economy has an indirect health effect on the population.”

The SA Coronavirus site recently published a list of general principles, written by Lydenburg Hospital’s Dr Megan Neudecker, for party-goers to follow during the pandemic.

Those considered high-risk should avoid bars and restaurants; if you do go out, it’s best to be outdoors. If you end up indoors, make sure there’s good ventilation.

Keep party numbers to a minimum and maintain 1.5m distance from others. Carry and use sanitiser frequently and don’t share food, drinks or cigarettes. Wear your mask when not eating or drinking, and don’t drink too much or you’ll forget the precautions.

Writing on the ill-fated Rage parties, Dr Sheri Fanaroff from Wits University, said it was, of course, better to stay home, but advised those who attend such parties and festivals to conduct a risk-benefit analysis.

She advised students who attend such events to quarantine for 10 days on returning home if they live with anyone who is vulnerable to the virus and for others to still consider quarantining for at least seven days. DM


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