New York and Los Angeles limit bars, restaurants to take-out only; CDC urges halt to mass gatherings

An empty restaurant in New York on March 15, 2020. New York has already banned gatherings of more than 500 people, including in Broadway theatres. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - The mayors of New York City and Los Angeles, the two largest cities in the United States, on Sunday (March 15) said they were ordering restaurants, theatres, bars and movie houses closed in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Any restaurant, bar or cafe selling food will be able to do so only via delivery or take-out, officials said.

The measures were the latest dramatic shutdowns as the authorities worldwide struggle to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

"The virus can spread rapidly through the close interactions New Yorkers have in restaurants, bars and places where we sit close together," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio."We have to break that cycle."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said on Sunday night that he was also ordering gyms to be closed.

Both mayors said they were not making their decisions lightly.

"These places are part of the heart and soul of our city. They are part of what it means to be a New Yorker," Mr de Blasio said. "But our city is facing an unprecedented threat, and we must respond with a wartime mentality."

He said his order would be in effect on Tuesday at 9am.

In Los Angeles, the restrictions would take effect at midnight on Sunday.

There was no word yet on how long the businesses in New York would remain closed - the mayor's office did not immediately respond to requests for detail.

Mr Garcetti said Los Angeles businesses affected by his order must stay closed until March 31, adding that he may extend the order.

More than 50,000 restaurants in New York were expected to shutter by Tuesday morning. According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants account for more than US$51 billion (S$72 billion) in annual revenue and have more than 800,000 employees.

"We will come through this, but until we do, we must make whatever sacrifices necessary to help our fellow New Yorkers," Mr de Blasio said.

Before word of the mayor's order came out, a New York police cruiser was seen in the East Village neighbourhood, a pillar of the city's night life scene, telling patrons of bars and restaurants to disperse and go home. Several businesses closed up shop shortly afterward.

For restaurant owner Julio Pena, the New York City shutdown looks devastating. Mr Pena, who managed to keep his Il Posto Accanto restaurant open in the aftermath of Sept 11 and Hurricane Sandy, doesn't know how he or other businesses will survive.

"Throughout whatever situation, we've always opened, not only for staff and to pay the bills, but because the community needs us," he said.

Meanwhile, in the most extreme effort yet to slow the march of the virus in the US, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday recommended that events of 50 people or more not be held for about two months.

For the next eight weeks, organisers should cancel or postpone in-person events of that size throughout the US, the agency said on its website on Sunday. When feasible, organisers could modify events to be virtual.

"This recommendation is made in an attempt to reduce introduction of the virus into new communities and to slow the spread of infection in communities already affected by the virus," the CDC said.

The advisory doesn't apply to the day-to-day operation of organisations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses - although many of those entities have taken steps of their own.

Instead, events such as conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies should be avoided, the CDC said.

US authorities are focusing on "flattening the curve" of the Covid-19 virus' spread, to prevent hospitals and other healthcare facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

Some 3,461 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the US, with 64 deaths. While that's a fraction of the incidence of seasonal flu, the authorities expect the figures to jump as testing becomes more available in the coming days.

"Events of any size should only be continued if they can be carried out with adherence to guidelines for protecting vulnerable populations, hand hygiene, and social distancing," the CDC said.

Vice-President Mike Pence said on Sunday at a press briefing that updated guidance on public gatherings would be coming on Monday. It is unclear if the CDC advisory supersedes that guidance.

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