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Young Customers Are Asked To Keep Kansas City Bars Going, But Also To Help Contain The Virus

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Nightlife in Westport is moving indoors, leaving younger patrons to figure out how to assess coronavirus risk.

Mayor Quinton Lucas recently cited the social habits of people in their 20s and 30s as a major contributing factor to rising COVID cases.

Prior to the pandemic, Phil Dixon went to restaurants and bars almost daily. The 26-year-old lives in Raytown, and from March to about July he’d been forced to quit his outings cold turkey.

He says he took his cue from the establishments he enjoys visiting: While they were closed, he stayed home; when they reopened outdoor seating, he showed up; when they allowed diners back inside, he moved back inside—albeit only maybe once a week.

“The more you saw other people doing things, the more comfortable you felt doing things in terms of going to the restaurant,” Dixon says.

In a Nov. 15 guest commentary in the Kansas City Star, Mayor Quinton Lucas wrote: “Right now, most of our community spread — nearly 50% of new cases — comes from those in their 20s and 30s. Please remember that while you may be healthy and able to overcome this virus, you could spread it to someone who cannot.”

Still, it’s unclear just who is responsible for keeping the community safe. People in their 20's and 30's? The hospitality industry? City, state, federal government?

Many in that age group don’t go out at all. Others, like Dixon, try to follow the lead of restaurants as well as current guidelines.

“Depending on the place, usually, I would wear my mask the entire time until I sit down at the area,” Dixon says. “Then when I sit down in the area, the mask will come off. I haven’t been to a bar or a club, but specifically for restaurants, any time we’re standing up, we wear a mask.”

Not everyone is vigilant, however. On social media and in conversations, staffers at drinking and dining establishments express frustration about customers who wear masks improperly or not at all, or need to be reminded to mask up when they're returning from the restroom or after taking a phone call outside.

  • Lowest Risk: Food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick up.
  • More Risk: Drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick up emphasized. On-site dining limited to outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  • Even More Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  • Highest Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart.

As Kansas City area COVID cases hover around 1,000 diagnoses each day, the city and surrounding counties have announced a new round of restrictions taking place today. Those include limiting indoor gatherings to 10 or fewer, gyms at 50% capacity with masking requirements, and 50% restaurant and bar capacities and a requirement of a 10 p.m. closing time.

Lucas said he hoped the new restrictions can avoid a repeat of the shutdown that took place earlier this year — which put many dining spots out of business and wrecked the finances of others.

Closing bars and restaurants earlier this year didn't sit well with many customers, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, many of whom have continued to gather in greater than advisable numbers, sometimes without masking.

A September Centers for Disease Control study shows that adults who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 are twice as likely as those who tested negative to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks before the onset of symptoms.

The study doesn’t point a finger at any particular age group. But Dixon says he sees a lot of people in his demographic who really don’t care.

Dixon says, “I’ll drive around and see people in certain areas that aren’t wearing masks when they get to the place and the masks will come completely off and stay below the nose or stay below the mouth like a chinstrap the rest of the time, which we all know makes absolutely no difference.”

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Taylor Scholle
Thirty-year-old Taylor Scholle fought COVID for two weeks in August. She's been staying in and making her own fun with activities like challenging herself to read a book a week.

Taylor Scholle, 30, took the initial shutdown and subsequent restrictions very seriously. Though her family lives elsewhere, for a while she worked in a retirement community and had become friends with older residents.

She hasn’t been allowed to see those friends since the facility went into lockdown, she says, but “knowing not everyone’s favorite old folks have that kind of protection is definitely a major reason I’ve remained as cautious as possible.”

Then in late July or early August, the Plaza restaurant she’d been furloughed from reopened.

“The very week that I was required to go back and start serving unmasked guests wine, a guest coughed on me. Not maliciously, just stupidly. And three days later I was bedridden,” Scholle says.

“Doing anything but lying still left me totally out of breath,” she says. “I slept most of the day. I barely ate. I lost my sense of taste and smell; it was terrible.”

Scholle is now a nanny and works in a private home—she says she doesn’t go out at all except to care for the two small children in their home while their parents work, also in the home.

She tries not to judge her peers too harshly, though having suffered through the illness, it’s frustrating to watch others’ casual approach to socializing.

“We’re in this impossible situation where we all know it’s a bad idea in theory,” she says, “but how am I supposed to be the one to tell people socializing is off limits if they’re still expected to be at work every single day by their bosses and the government with what amounts to the theatrics of safety measures?”

The majority of young Kansas Citians who responded to KCUR’s request for interviews agree with Scholle that caution is imperative.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Pedestrians walk past the shuttered Westport Ale House on Thursday afternonn.

Justin Noggle is a 31-year-old software engineer and lives with three roommates in Prairie Village. For months, he and two of his roommates have worked from home and not socialized with anyone but the same small group of friends who have agreed to live cautiously.

“I feel very mixed and conflicted emotions about people going out,” Noggle says. “I mean, I can empathize on one hand, like this really sucks, and it’s really sucked for a really long time. But, I don’t know. Let’s just not go out for a little bit.”

Ella Leslie is 25 and lives in Waldo. She says she’s only rarely visited a bar or restaurant since March, and that was only if she could find an empty patio area.

Her friends include people who are HIV positive, asthmatic, diabetic, and some smokers, all of whom are at an increased risk for complications from COVID, so that has motivated her to be careful.

Instead, Leslie’s friend group has made its own fun. For each friend’s birthday for the past nine months, they’ve created themed outdoor parties and even dressed up as each other for Halloween.

“We’re not willing to risk any of us getting sick from a stranger at a bar, and then take it back to one of our friends who’s at a higher risk. I’d say that’s our biggest motivator,” Leslie says.

But if many diners still don’t take such precautions, and restaurants and bars stay open—even with earlier closing times—the burden of public health is shifted to the restaurants themselves, Kansas City food writer Liz Cook pointed out in previous KCUR restaurant coverage.

The Westport Ale House already has had its food permit suspended temporarily this fall by the city Health Department, which said the tavern didn't cooperative sufficiently with investigators after a COVID outbreak was linked to the business.

The tavern's management wrote on Facebook this week: “In an effort to do our small part and remain proactive towards the betterment and well-being of the community, we have decided in order to help prevent the spread of Covid–19, to temporally (sic) shut down until early 2021.”

But most restaurants and bars are not financially capable of foregoing all revenue. So, still without clear rules, the onus of quelling community spread continues to rest with the age group that is also counted on to keep the businesses open.

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