Quasi-stationary, or metastable, states play an important role in two-dimensional turbulent fluid flows, where they often emerge on timescales much shorter than the viscous timescale, and then dominate the dynamics for very long time intervals. In this paper we propose a dynamical systems explanation of the metastability of an explicit family of solutions, referred to as bar states, of the two-dimensional incompressible Navier–Stokes equation on the torus. These states are physically relevant because they are associated with certain maximum entropy solutions of the Euler equations, and they have been observed as one type of metastable state in numerical studies of two-dimensional turbulence. For small viscosity (high Reynolds number), these states are quasi-stationary in the sense that they decay on the slow, viscous timescale. Linearization about these states leads to a time-dependent operator. We show that if we approximate this operator by dropping a higher-order, non-local term, it produces a decay rate much faster than the viscous decay rate. We also provide numerical evidence that the same result holds for the full linear operator, and that our theoretical results give the optimal decay rate in this setting.