Future Tense

What’s the Point of COVID-19 Curfews?

A person in a face mask at dusk
Italy, where this picture was taken Friday, has introduced a 10 p.m.–5 a.m. nationwide curfew. Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images

The U.S. continues to set new records for daily COVID cases, and hospitals are reaching capacity. It’s déjà vu from March, when the then-novel coronavirus first swept across the country—and once again, the lack of federal response has left states to choose their own adventure. As before, there seems to be little correlation between case counts and policy. In Oregon, there has been a 12.6 percent increase in cases in the past week, and on Friday, Gov. Kate Brown announced a two-week “freeze,” closing gyms, bars, and dine-in restaurants. Meanwhile, Nebraska has experienced an 18.5 percent increase in cases in a week; Gov. Pete Ricketts announced a plan to eliminate extracurricular sports for elementary and middle schoolers and dine-in restaurants if numbers worsen but has not actually implemented any closures. And New York, which has seen a 5.2 percent increase in new cases in the past week, received orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that all bars, restaurants, and gyms must close by 10 p.m.

New York is not alone; in Massachusetts and two Colorado counties, 10 p.m. is also the bewitching hour. Things are a bit more lenient in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and in Virginia, where things close down at midnight. Internationally, Spain, Italy, and Moscow are also shutting down businesses earlier. But what, exactly, does a curfew accomplish? So far, there isn’t compelling evidence that curfews will necessarily slow the spread of COVID-19.

The intention, clearly, is to reduce “high-risk” behaviors, like hanging out at nightclubs or bars. “I think the rationale is that compliance with safety measures like masks and physical distancing may erode later in the evening, particularly if people have been drinking alcohol,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. If bargoers need to get a ride home on public transit or via a ride share or taxi, that could potentially expose even more people.

But there’s nothing about the night that hastens the spread of COVID-19—“viruses are not vampires,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, said in an email—so keeping businesses open during the day still allows exposures. (In many cases, curfew hours might not interfere with businesses’ regular hours at all, and therefore effectively does not decrease risk of transmission at all.) “If gyms or bars are operating (especially at capacity) prior to 10 p.m., there is still a substantial exposure risk.”

Early closures might actually encourage other risky behaviors. “Curfews often condense people visiting businesses into a more narrow period of time, which often means more crowding and potential exposures,” says Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University. And as anyone who’s drunkenly closed down a bar knows, there’s often an after-party somewhere else. Just because you have to leave your favorite watering hole at 10 p.m. doesn’t mean the night is over. Curfews “could just shift the risky behavior into harder to regulate environments, such as from bars to house parties,” says Nuzzo. If curfews are adequately enforced, that may also introduce additional risks to people of color; historically, curfews have served as an excuse for racial profiling. This inconsistent enforcement has continued in 2020, especially during curfews set to deter protests following the murder of George Floyd. In June, the Chicago Sun-Times’ review of police records found that 75 percent of Chicagoans charged with curfew violations are Black.

Ideally, curfew orders will be accompanied by other major policy changes, like reducing occupancy and mask mandates, says Popescu. Many areas with curfews have implemented at least one if not both of those policies, which will hopefully work in concert with earlier closing times to keep viral spread to a minimum.

The concurrence of all these policies is a good thing, overall, but it also makes studying the effectiveness of any curfew extremely difficult. “I am not aware of any research demonstrating the impact of curfews alone,” says Nuzzo. Given the long lead time on publishing science journal articles, there are few papers studying the effect of curfews on COVID-19 spread, and none specifically quantify the contribution of curfews. Unlike conditions in a controlled study, few countries are selectively employing just one or two precautions; many are trying multiple precautions at a time. What data does exist on curfews suggests that countries that fully closed businesses, rather than just setting curfews, generally had higher patient recovery rates. But that, of course, is far from the only factor; one paper by a Jordanian researcher found that Middle Eastern countries with stricter curfews likely helped prevent spread of the disease, but that other factors—“demographic characteristics, precautions taken, public commitment, firmness in implementing measures, public awareness of the disease, national vaccinations’ programs”—played a role as well.

Though curfews may not do much on their own to curb the spread of COVID-19, they do send a message to the public: Things are getting worse, and we need to do something. And, unfortunately, the way things are going this November, curfews will be just the beginning of renewed policies to slow transmission.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.