For months, in response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s decree for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, all the bars and private clubs in the state have been closed. In the last decade, there had already been a noticeable decline in the number of LGBTQ establishments nationwide, and this public health crisis only adds to the pressure these businesses face. With the onset of dating and hook-up apps, along with broader acceptance of LGBTQ people, the intrinsic need for these safe spaces has been diluted. Once the focal point of communities, gay bars now struggle more to stay open. Historically, bars were not only places for camaraderie, they were also epicenters for activism and fundraising.
As of early June 2020, despite thinking the North Carolina private clubs would reopen during Phase II of the state’s plan to reopen, private clubs in particular have been forced to remain shuttered. One question is this: Why are restaurants with full bars safe enough to open, but private clubs are not? This point of contention is the reason for a lawsuit against the governor filed by the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association (NCBATA). According to their official press release:
“Despite our numerous requests, the governor’s office has offered no science or data showing that having a drink in a private bar is more dangerous than having a drink in a brewery bar, distillery bar, or even a restaurant bar,” said association President Zack Medford.
NCBATA spoke with the governor’s office on June 3 to request a reopening date for private bars. “While there was an encouraging exchange of facts and ideas, we do not believe the governor is willing to consent to our request to reopen by June 12,” said the association’s government relations consultant, Jack Cozort. “We have agreed to keep the lines of communication open.”
Although this situation applies to all the bars in Charlotte, and throughout the region on the North Carolina side of the line, the situation is different for The Hide-A-Way, located in Rock Hill, S.C. According to Margie Teal, the owner, she was able to open on a Thursday night several weeks ago. She did not bother to apply for any small business grants through the federal program, because after talking to people there she decided it was too complicated to bother. She also had no access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Helping her to weather the closures, she has had leniency in paying rent while unable to operate. The Hide-A-Way has been in its location for 32 years, and the landlord is keen to keep a loyal tenant. What is The Hide-A-Way doing to promote health and safety now that they have resumed serving patrons?
Although the club can host 250 guests, they are allowing only 100. On the first weekend there were not yet more than 70 people, but many of those did come across from North Carolina. Also, they have removed some of the tables and chairs to promote distancing, there are no bar stools at the bar, and they encourage people to sit only two people to each table. People are encouraged to wear masks, but they are not required.
Margie says, “People are afraid to come out, and a lot of the queens aren’t ready to perform yet. I don’t think ‘normal’ will ever be the norm again.” Despite this, she feels The Hide-A-Way should be able to survive, especially as she is eventually able to allow more people to congregate inside at any given time.
However, this is not the situation in Mecklenburg County. The Woodshed is using this time to do upgrades and remodeling. As with any of the other bar managers, they cannot predict a date for reopening. The bar was able to get some government assistance, but not enough to make a significant impact. The owner was able to provide assistance to employees, but this was done out of pocket. As with The Hide-A-Way, there is no pressure for paying rent. In terms of guest safety, the plan is to incorporate masks, sanitizer, shields and social distancing. Although the owner has ordered touchless thermometers, he is not certain to use them, given the potential privacy violations. The government authorities will dictate capacity, but it is hoped that having two covered patios will help encourage social distancing protocols. Timothy Lee, the owner of The Woodshed, extolled the community to, “take care of yourselves, and take care of each other.”
At The Scorpio the situation is similar. Plans for events are generally on hold. The owner did apply for government assistance, but the status of that application is still unknown. And although all the staff were furloughed, many were able to get unemployment benefits. The Scorpio is another venue that does not have the pressure of paying rent. The manager absolutely anticipates reopening once the governor has allowed private clubs to do so, and there is no fear of the bar closing. To encourage social distancing, the manager plans to remove tables and chairs, and to have patrons stand in queues to order drinks. Attendance capacity will be defined by the state, and The Scorpio will adhere closely to those standards. It will also be possible for the entertainers to practice social distancing in the dressing rooms, so performers will not be placed at risk preparing backstage with each other.
The situation for Chasers is different. Tiffany Storm has owned the bar for six years, and has poured significant resources into upgrades and remodeling. Although she has been able to access unemployment for herself, she has had absolutely no government business assistance or landlord leniency. She was able to raise $3,000 by way of GoFundMe, which covered expenses for April; however, she is loathe to request more help from the patrons, since many of them may also be impacted by soaring unemployment rates. In addition to her own personal expenses, she has also had to cover all the costs of the business. Fortunately, the business loan was paid off three years ago, so that particular pressure is no longer an issue. But at this point, the survival of the bar is not guaranteed. “I try to keep three month’s worth of savings on hand, but those funds are almost gone.” She does not anticipate large crowds when the bar is allowed to open, but has a strategy to implement her food licenses and professional kitchen. She would like to offer a limited menu as a way to entice patrons back to the performances.