After a recent COVID-19 exposure at at least seven bars and taverns in Ashland, the Ashland County Public Health Department has ordered drinking establishments to close in the city and the immediate surrounding area for 17 days to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The order goes into effect Friday at 12:01 a.m. and expires Oct. 11 at 11:59 p.m. Those who do not comply could pay $200-$500 for each violation and that includes both those operating the business and customers, according to Ashland County.

The county defined a bar or tavern as any establishment where alcoholic beverages make up at least 51% of the gross receipts. Bars and taverns that contain restaurants can remain open as long as their bar seating closes.

Of the 32 new diagnoses of COVID-19 in the last three weeks, Ashland County said the majority of them have been linked to "spontaneous gatherings" in taverns and bars.

"Many COVID-19 infected individuals have no symptoms or only mild symptoms for which they never seek medical attention," the order said.

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It went on to add that Ashland County is home to a significant population of older residents who are more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19.