The front of Threes Above High shows physically-distanced groups waiting to enter the bar. While some campus-area bars are showing signs of adherence to state guidelines, students believe that they are still contributing to the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Credit: Courtesy of Scott Ellsworth

Lines of people crowd sidewalks, tables of four or five gather for drinks and in some bars there’s standing room only. 

As Ohio State limits in-person gatherings, mandates mask-wearing and reduces in-person class sizes to slow the spread of COVID-19, some campus-area bars have remained a hub for student social life. Photos posted on social media show violations of these regulations at some area bars, with dozens of people crowding inside and on patios over the past few weeks.

Dylan Page, a third-year in political science and public policy analysis, said he goes on daily runs near campus and sees crowded lines when passing campus-area bars.

“I see, every night, what is happening between Summit Street and here on campus,” Page said. “Every night — it doesn’t matter if it’s the weekday or a weekend — there are kids standing in line not socially distancing, not wearing their masks all the time.”

In a July 30 press conference, Gov. Mike DeWine issued an emergency order to ban the sale of liquor past 10 p.m. for all bars in the state in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Ohio Liquor Control Commission put the order into effect the next day.

Although the university has not said whether any off-campus clusters were traced back to bars, DeWine stated in the July press conference that outbreaks of the virus in three cities, including Columbus, could be traced back to bars.

“There is, however, an inherent problem connected with bars,” DeWine said. “They do lend themself to people going in and out in close contact with each other, many, many times indoors. Patrons either stay at one location, sometimes for a long time, or they go from bar to bar. Either way, they’re interacting with a lot of different people. This is especially true for our younger crowd.”

DeWine said establishments that fail to adhere to state guidelines could have their liquor licenses revoked. Enforcement of these guidelines by the city has not stopped since the order was put into effect.

Dan Starek, owner of Leo’s on the Alley and Oldfield’s North Fourth Tavern, said there are many bars that are following guidelines — and some that are not.

“A large majority of bars on campus are doing it right. Threes is doing it right. The Library is doing it right. Leo’s, Oldfield’s, Bier Stube — are all doing it right,” Starek said. “And then you have other bars near central campus that aren’t following any rules at all, and they haven’t been following any rules since day one.”

Oldfield’s North Fourth Tavern’s Twitter account posted a statement Aug. 6 claiming that someone from the Columbus Public Health Department came to do an inspection for a social distancing complaint. 

“The inspector laughed when he walked in & was joking with us. Obviously we were good to go, but we’re guessing someone doesn’t like us too pretty much,” the tweet reads.

Threes Above High’s Twitter account wrote that nine liquor agents visited the bar Saturday. 

The line outside of The Big Bar on Aug. 22 shows guests not physically-distanced while waiting for entry. Credit: Courtesy of Dylan Page

The Lantern contacted multiple bars near campus to speak with them about how they were following state guidelines and measures they’ve taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Lantern reached out to Ethyl & Tank and spoke with a manager who did not provide any other comments besides that the bar was following all the rules and taking precautions. Fourth Street Taproom and Kitchen did not respond to requests for comment. 

Both of these bars are owned by A&R Creative Group, a restaurant group that also owns TRISM, Midway On High and Tobacco International. 

Savannah Anderson, operational human resources manager for A&R Creative Group, said in an email that the group has  taken multiple measures to ensure the safety of their guests at their locations while also adhering to city, state, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. 

The group’s locations have implemented QR code menus to eliminate high-touch paper menus, provided single-use condiment packets, reduced capacity to 50 percent in their establishments, created to-go cocktail and menu items, and installed air purifier products that have been tested to kill flu viruses from a cough within three feet, Anderson said. 

All staff for A&R Creative Group have taken and passed COVID-19 specific training and must undergo a wellness check and have their temperatures taken prior to starting shifts. Masks are required within establishments except during the consumption of food or drink, tables are spaced in compliance with social distancing guidelines, and a “sanitizer” position has been created for their locations – in which an individual’s sole role is to disinfect high touch areas, Anderson said.

Ugly Tuna 2 declined to comment. The Big Bar, which also houses a rooftop patio on North High Street, also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Scott Ellsworth, owner of Threes Above High and Fours On High, said he believes his bars are doing a good job of complying with state guidelines. 

Both of Ellsworth’s bars have plexiglass barriers between tables as well as directional markers leading to areas where people can order drinks. Ellsworth said guests who do not have barriers between them must remain 6 feet apart and that physical distancing is also enforced in the line to enter the bar. Guests have their temperature checked after presenting their IDs before entering the bar and may only remove their masks when seated.

“The majority of people who at least we interact with are pretty positive about what we’re specifically doing, so, obviously that’s important to us,” Ellsworth said. “But, there’s also the people who are going to complain no matter what about what’s going on and how they don’t think we’re doing the right things. Yet, they’ve never been in our bar.” 

Ellsworth said he wants critics to understand that his bars are complying with the mandated guidelines. Although he believes there are bars that are not enforcing guidelines in their establishments, he said his concerns are his staff, customers and what happens when people enter and leave his bars.

Undergraduate Student Government President Roaya Higazi, a fourth-year in city and regional planning, tweeted on her personal account Aug. 28 that she wanted Ohio State to “start applying pressure on the city and these bars and restaurants that are capitalizing on students with no regard for any health orders.”

Higazi said she understands that bars and restaurants have been trying to stay open in order to maintain business and make revenue but that owners also have a responsibility in terms of the enforcement of guidelines in their establishments. 

“Obviously, we know at bars and restaurants people don’t necessarily have to wear their masks the whole time,” Higazi said. “Even though the guidelines ask them to wear their masks until they get their food and only take off their masks while they’re actively eating, we know that that’s not the case and that it’s not being enforced in that manner.”

Higazi said that she knows Ohio State does not have any control over the bars and how they enforce their guidelines but wants the university to work with the bars to understand that the spread of COVID-19 is increasing “dramatically” and that a majority of campus bars’ guests are students. She also wants the university to put pressure on the city to enforce its guidelines at these bars. 

Page said that the university should allocate resources into events and programs that students can participate in to discourage participation in bar culture. With the university  discouraging all in-person activity, Page said that  is making students want to go to off-campus parties and campus-area bars.

“They painted the circles on the Oval. Do a movie night every Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, you know? If everyone sits in their circle with their friends that are wearing masks, that’s no problem. Like, that’s completely safe,” Page said. “They have all these tents set up. Things to do outside — let’s start promoting that.”

Higazi said she believes it is impossible for anyone to say that they are not contributing to the spread of COVID-19. 

“You can be going places thinking that you’re not contributing to the spread, but you may be asymptomatic,” Higazi said. “You may be exposed to someone and you may be not impacted by that, but the next person you see or someone you sit by will be impacted by you.”

This story was updated at 2:20 with comment from A&R Creative Group.