Varying policies in neighboring states are sending customers across the border for sit-down meals and drinks.

By Mike Pomranz
May 20, 2020
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From fireworks to gambling, crossing state lines to take advantage of laxer laws is as American as still making fun of that neighboring state for being clearly inferior to your own. But just because it’s common doesn’t means it doesn’t cause problems—especially when there’s a pandemic. Last month, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine had to restrict alcohol sales after Pennsylvanians flooded across the border to buy booze. And now, as some states open up restaurants and bars while others don’t, coronavirus restaurant tourism is becoming an issue.

After the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the state’s stay-at-home order last week, residents from Illinois—where restrictions remain strict—have been traveling north across the border to eat, drink and visit open shops, according to The Washington Post. Earlier in the month, the paper reported on a similar phenomenon when Georgia reopened: Using smartphone data, researchers at the University of Maryland found that an additional 62,440 people per day traveled into the state from surrounding areas during the first week restrictions were lifted.

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“It’s exactly the kind of effect we’ve been worried about,” Meagan Fitzpatrick, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, was quoted as saying. “This is not an unpredictable outcome with businesses opening in one location and people going to seek services there.”

Needless to say, the phenomenon doesn’t stop there. The Post once again spoke to University of Maryland researchers to look at the numbers after parts of Virginia and Maryland opened over the weekend. Travel reportedly jumped 18 percent from previous weekends—about 860,000 additional travelers in all—even while the D.C. area, which has been harder hit by COVID-19, remained locked down.

Lead researcher Lei Zhang pointed to an obvious problem: “It actively encourages people to travel from high-risk areas to these otherwise safer, more rural areas without many cases. That’s certainly not a good trend.” For the record, Virginia had allowed some restaurants to resume outdoor seating; Maryland’s ban on restaurant seating remained statewide.

Meanwhile, the mishmash of policies doesn’t just have health ramifications. Restaurant and bar owners are getting hurt, too. Back in Illinois, restaurants that could only serve takeout had no choice but to watch as potential customers drove across the border to reach a sit-down experience elsewhere. “Eat here, drink there,” Doyle’s Pub in Richmond, Illinois, reportedly wrote on Facebook, referring to neighboring Wisconsin. “We need you now more than ever.”