As Covid-19 cases surge in many parts of the United States, recently reopened bars have come under heightened scrutiny as possible vectors for disease transmission. Governors in Florida, Texas, and other states are re-closing these establishments to combat the spread of the virus. That prompts a difficult conversation: Should bars be operating right now? If so, should they have to offer outdoor seating only? How can customers maintain safe social distance in a setting and business model that’s geared toward packing people into close quarters?
Those questions and more are examined on this week’s episode of the VinePair Podcast. Also discussed is how the federal government, and many state and local governments, have done little to ensure that these businesses can survive this unprecedented challenge.
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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Erica: From Connecticut, I’m Erica Duecy.
Zach: And in Bellingham, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair Podcast. You just threw me for the weirdest loop. Where is Bellingham?
Z: It’s about 90 miles north of Seattle. I’m with my son, visiting the grandparents for the holiday weekend. We’re doing this one on location.
A: I thought you were trying to show off. You’re on vacation. Even in Covid, Zach Geballe takes his vacations.
Z: I’m literally in the guest bedroom recording a podcast. The sole extent of my plans for this time up here is to be able to take naps while my mom watches our son.
A: I was really hoping you were going to say you’re in your childhood bedroom.
Z: No. I did not grow up here. My mom moved up here after I went off to college.
A: What kind of posters would a young Zach Geballe have on his wall as a child?
Z: Do you want to guess, or do you want me to tell you?
A: It would have been the Constitution, or maybe a picture of “I’m Just a Bill” from “Schoolhouse Rock.”
Z: You have the wrong impressions.
A: I know you like the rules, man. Maybe there’s a picture of you in a prep school outfit.
Z: I went to public school. I did not go to private school.
A: You probably had G. I. Joe on your wall.
Z: What age are we talking about here? Mostly it was pictures of Ken Griffey Jr.
E: Oh! That makes sense.
A: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
Z: A lot of Ken Griffey Jr. and Shawn Kemp because those were the coolest athletes in town when I was a kid.
Z: Oh right! You wanted to go into sports broadcasting.
Z: I did. I did not want to go into politics or constitutional law or whatever you seem to think. Erica, what was on the walls in your childhood bedroom?
E: I was super into all of the characters from “Stand by Me” and “The Lost Boys.” A lot of good late 80s, early 90s films that now my oldest daughter is the age she could start watching these moves. Why was I watching R-rated movies back then? Where were my parents? There is no way. I just previewed both of those movies to see if they should not be R-rated movies. They definitely should be rated right where they are. Why the hell was I watching them as a fourth grader?
A: That’s hilarious.
Z: Adam, how about you? Do you want to fess up to what was on your childhood walls?
A: Totally. We’re talking middle school? I guess my parents thought I had a hobby? I was really into collecting all the Absolut Vodka ads.
E: That’s so prescient.
A: So was my best friend from growing up, Darby. Darby does the theme music for Wine 101: Another plug for Wine 101 if you’re not listening to it. Listen to it, people! He and I were both really into it. We were both into it to a point where we probably did some not OK things. We both grew up in Auburn. It’s a university, and our dads are both professors. We would use our dads’ professor IDs to go into the university library and go into the periodicals section, in which they had old copies of magazines. We’d take the magazines and cut out the Absolut Vodka ads.
E: That’s real dedication!
A: Because they were ads that were rarer and hard to find. There was a whole group of people that was collecting these ads because some of them were super rare. Now that I’m much older and have gone to business school, you actually study that campaign in business school because it’s considered one of the most successful and innovative marketing campaigns of the last 40 years because of the amount of insane artists and designers they got to come up with these ads. It’s a shame they got rid of that ad campaign. It was iconic. That’s really what was on my wall. My parents thought I was crazy.
Z: Most importantly Adam, when did you first have Absolut Vodka?
A: At my bar mitzvah.
Z: There you go. You were indoctrinated early.
A: I think the parents had it out, to take shots to say, “Congratulations, your son’s a man.” And I took some of that.
Z: There you go.
A: The classic Absolut Vodka? It’s been well over a decade since I’ve had Absolut Vodka.
Z: Absolut folks, you know what to do. Send Adam a bottle. He’ll throw it in his Vitamix.
A: I’m also looking for a grand piano.
Z: I sure hope you and Naomi don’t buy a walk-up. Taking a grand piano up there might be rough.
A: I don’t know where we’d put it. I take a treadmill at this point. Anyways, on this week’s episode, we’re going to talk about a hot-button issue that’s been making the rounds on our site and on mainstream news sites: the politics, positives, and negatives of reopening bars. We’re going to talk about bars specifically as opposed to restaurants because there’s a lot of other things that go into the reopening of restaurants. We’re going to define bars as places where the primary reason you go is to drink. You don’t go because they also make a really great burger, and you’re going for the burger. You go there for the drinks, and they operate as a place in which they make the majority when they’re at capacity. These are the places you’d go when you’re shoulder to shoulder with people. You’re there to buy great cocktails and beer. We’re talking about this because there are a lot of people saying they shouldn’t open. Bars are being blamed across the country for this continued spread of Covid. Guys, at this point, if a bar were to open in your area, would you go?
E: Yeah! I’ll hop in. I was down in Jersey City over the weekend. There were so many bars open. All the bars were open. You could either walk in and order a cocktail, wine, or beer for takeaway. Or, you could order it to sit outside on the patio. I was totally for bars being open, and how can we not reopen them and make it easier for these businesses to do some sales. Man, after being in Jersey City for the weekend, and I went for a drink at one place, there was a big group of 20 people all uptight and close to each other, talking for hours. I went to dinner. I came back. Three hours later, that same group has now grown to 30 people. Just 30 people! Up in each others’ faces: drinking, smoking, and talking. None of these people were wearing masks. This is how this thing spreads. That made me pause and give it a second think.
Z: I wouldn’t go into a bar without a pretty significant incentive. My biggest issue with going to a bar is not feeling like I can trust the people around me. That bums be out. The reality is, the dynamic in a restaurant is a little different. You tend to be seated and stay seated. You’re not co-mingling. Bars have served as a place for that kind of coming together and comingling and conversations. It’s that aspect that makes them so dangerous right now. I can’t imagine it. It doesn’t seem to me to be something that’s safe. I could see sitting outside and having a drink, but we have figured out a model for these bars to continue to survive for the foreseeable future while also balancing safety. I’m not sure that the model trying to limit capacity works. I worked in bars for years. It was hard enough to get people to follow rules when the only rules were “Don’t throw shit at the bartender.” We had to kick people out for that. Now, how do you maintain distance? Some people are always going to be inherently willing to push the boundaries and take chances and put themselves at more risk. To some extent, you can’t control that. When you’re trying to create a space for someone more cautious, how do you police that with 30 people and just a couple of bar staff? You get into a really difficult position. We’ve all seen all the videos in bars and of people outraged at being asked to be considerate of the people around them.
A: Everything you both are saying, I agree with. I would not go into a bar right now. The reason people are nervous about bars specifically is because we know from society that alcohol causes you to lower your inhibitions. Even just accidentally, it’s why we don’t let you get behind the wheel of a car if you drink. You’re not thinking in the same way. I could even see myself being in that bar, having a few drinks, and all of a sudden just totally forgetting to put my mask on. And then seeing someone I hadn’t seen in a while, walking up, and talking too close to them. Or, talking louder. As we all know, volume rises when we go to bars. Talking louder causes moisture to expel from your mouth, which is the droplets we hear about that are the way that Covid spreads. All of these things are what make bars really dangerous. We also know that A/C recirculates Covid. Being in a bar with A/C blasting, which allows Covid to continue to stay active in the air, when someone else is then talking with their mask down, is a scary thing. It also puts the staff at risk. What are these owners supposed to do? We have to figure out some way it works where they can exist outside. Is that a manageable level? Last weekend, I walked around Fort Greene. I walked by a bar. They just moved what a packed night would look like to the sidewalk immediately in front of their bar. It freaked me out. It wasn’t like they were monitoring. They were making money equal to what they would make on a Saturday night, making cashing. No one was spread out. They were confined to that space in front of the bar. The bar was street-facing property. People wanted to be right by the bar, so they could get another drink. No one’s going to spread out down the block. I’m assuming if they spread out down the block, they might get a neighbor who came out and yelled angrily at them. So, they were all right in front of the bar. It was creating just the same problems. The only benefit I see is that the droplets were not enclosed, so droplets have more likelihood to go out into the air and not as easily spread. No one was wearing masks. I don’t know how you fix that. When I have gone by restaurants, people seem to be a little bit more behaved, and the spacing of the tables helps with that. There were a lot of restaurants I walked by where every time the server came up to a table, they pulled up their masks to talk to the server. Then the server walked away, and they took their masks off to have a conversation with their friends. They were eating their food, but their masks were always on when they were ordering. At the bar, I didn’t even see anyone walk up to the window wearing a mask to order. It’s a hard conversation. We’ve got to find a solution.
E: Right. We did this article a couple of weeks ago looking at what bars in Asia are doing. In Hong Kong, for example, the bars are allowing people to come inside, but you aren’t allowed to stand. You have to be seated at a table. You have to have five feet of separation there. In addition to that, there’s also rules around the types of health checks you have to pass. In Taiwan, for example, you have to do temperature checks. You have to sign a health declaration form so that contact tracers can get in contact with you if you’re in this bar and someone turns out to have Covid. Those types of health declaration forms, because we are in a different country with different rules, I don’t think that would fly here. People have a lot of opinions about privacy. Even though it seems like it’s for the greater good to have these health declaration forms and making it easy for contact tracers, I don’t think a lot of people going into bars, definitely in some states more than others, would be willing to fill things out and play ball in a system like that.
Z: You put so much of this burden on bars and restaurants that are not equipped for that. Talking about government support: I want to get to that later, in terms of financial support, which is an important piece to this. Even just the logistical support of keeping track of who’s coming in. If we find out that someone who was at our bar on that busy Saturday night has since tested positive, right now, it’s pretty safe to say we’re doing very little to track those things. That’s not just in bars. That’s anywhere that is open. As a result, we’re so ill- equipped to face this. I don’t want this to turn into a rant about our country’s response to Covid. There’s lots of other podcasts there. I do think that from the bar’s perspective, you’re asking an unfair amount of establishments that don’t exist to fill those functions, to track who’s coming in and who’s coming out, to provide more health and safety than they do from a food-service standpoint. It just is an example of all of these various ways in which we’ve left people and small businesses out to dry. At a governmental level, most federal, but statewide in a lot of cases, there’s just been zero interest in figuring this shit out at a larger level.
A: That’s what’s not fair. I don’t want anyone listening to this podcast to think we’re picking on bars at all. They’re screwed. If I were in the position, I’d be thinking the same thing. What are we supposed to do? You’re now saying that we’re allowed to be open? We had to let go of our staff, probably within the first few days of Covid. As we all know, the margins of running a bar are incredibly thin. We are now finally being allowed to reopen. We are probably not at our full staff capacity. Even at this bar that I was talking about that was packed, there were only two people there. There was someone taking orders at the window, punching them in. Sorry, there were three people there. There was one person taking orders at the window. There was one person who was then passing those orders back to the bartender. The person was then bringing drinks back to the window. This is a bar that I think normally would have, on a busy Friday or Saturday night, five or six people behind the bar. And they had three. They can’t afford that. Now you’re saying, now it should be on us? We should hire people to do contact tracing and to check people’s temperatures? And a bouncer potentially, to make sure people are six feet apart outside on the sidewalk? It’s not fair to sit here and say it’s their problem, and that they should figure it out. No, it’s not because no one has helped them up to this point. We can’t just keep putting it all on them. It’s not fair. It’s not the way society should exist. It’s not my problem; it’s your problem. Well, why can’t we say as a society, we want to go out and drink and help them, so it’s also on us to be responsible and to be willing to call out others at the bar and say hey, could you guys put your masks on? Would you mind being a little further away from my group? If no one’s willing to do that, then this is just what happens.
Z: It’s a dangerous place where when, alcohol is involved, you talk about inhibitions being lowered. I’ve also been working in bars where we’ve had to break up fights. It’s not an uncommon thing, sadly, when alcohol is involved. When you think about the ways in which people are wearing a mask, being considerate towards others, has sadly become an affront to their individual freedoms that merits aggressive and/or violent response. It’s not fair to put that into the bar either. The reality of all of this comes down to two things. The first is what we’ve been talking about: To preserve public safety, some of these things need to be taken on at a level much beyond the individual business. The other one is, it needs to be in the financial interest of these establishments to not be packed. There needs to be some support or aid that allows them to serve people but serve people safely. Packing people in because it’s the only way you can keep your business afloat was fine in a pre-Covid world. It just cannot be how we as a society handle this. It cannot be the only option for these bars and other establishments to stay open, to pack in, totally ignoring the science that says that the only way to be safe around strangers is to be at a distance. Instead, we’re doing none, or only outside. It’s not like fresh air is a cure-all. Otherwise, we’d all be camping out or something. There has to be an approach that allows for these businesses to function at a limited capacity. That approach has to involve subsidies from the government, the way that we have subsidized a lot of other businesses, through this crisis. We’ve talked about this with lots of our interviews with bar owners, bartenders, and other businesses, too, in this industry. That money has just not found its way into the industry for the most part.
A: Also, we need to relax the laws. I don’t mean the alcohol laws. I mean the laws we have about fair play in the alcohol business. For example, I was talking to a brand manager earlier today for a very well-known alcohol brand, who was saying, “We have funds that we’d love to help give these bars so that they can build more safe and secure patios in the street.” I don’t know what it’s like in Seattle, Zach, but here, if you don’t have outdoor space already attached to your bar, a lot of neighborhoods, and the city is fast-tracking these permits, are allowing you to commandeer two or three parking spaces and make an area that people can then stand in when they’re being served. The problem is, for a lot of these places that don’t have a lot of money, they’re putting out trash bins or plant potters. Those aren’t really great lines of demarcation, if you will. Those aren’t borders. Some people are spilling out beyond them. Places are getting well over capacity. If one of one of these brands offers to build a beautiful wood deck, that is that space, and all you have to do is put branding on the deck once or twice, paid for, that would be a huge help to the bars. And it helps with crowd control. But you would have to have a specific area that people would be in. If it was at capacity you would have to tell people sorry, they can’t be served unless they take a cocktail to go. In a lot of states, because of laws, people say they can’t do that. That would be considered as giving a bribe to a business in order for that business to pick up alcohol, to pick up their product in sales. Can we just get over that? And let them do that?
A: These bars and restaurants that have basically lost everything can have a lifeline from brands that have made money off-premise during this time. If we’re not willing to give government subsidies, then at least relax these antiquated laws that make it much harder for people to do business.
E: We’ve also been talking about how it would be great for cocktail bars and all types of bars to continue to do takeout, delivery cocktails. This week Iowa became the first state to mandate that that’s going to be a permanent change. As we’ve talked to bar owners in the past several months, we’ve realized that really only brings in about 30 percent of a night’s take, compared to where they were before Covid. In order to allow them to keep operating, getting through this time, even in a smaller way with a limited employee base, at least that’s a little thing that all states could participate in: allowing cocktails to go on a more permanent basis. There’s got to be several things happening here. You can do the takeout model. You can do some additional subsidies. There’s got to be an integrated approach to allow these bars to continue operating. It could be months! It could be years that we’re looking at.
A: It could.
Z: For a lot of people that I’ve talked to that are in the bar industry who’ve moved into delivery or takeout cocktails, the challenge for them is equipment: canning lines or a vacuum sealing machine. It doesn’t make sense to invest in those things if you’re only going to have a few months of selling to-go cocktails. If that’s a permanent change, you might say yes, we have to put some money down on these things upfront, but we can expect to be able to continue to sell cocktails for months and years on end. Adding that little bit of certainty that this is going to be a persistent and continued option, instead of a temporary option, that could be huge. The other big issue, and we’re coming up on it soon, is, we’re going to have a real unemployment crisis if there isn’t an extension of this additional $600 a week that has been added to unemployment for people through the end of July.
Z: When that money goes away, you’re going to have over 10 million people in the service industry, in the restaurant and bar industry, who are still out of work because most places are not open, or are only open in a limited capacity. Those people are going to be on some amount of state-funded unemployment, but I will tell you, my state-funded unemployment would have been comically inadequate to cover the expenses that I have. That’s true for most everyone else who’s working in restaurants. It’s not designed to be a full-subsistence living. It’s just enough money to get you through to get another job.
Z: If this industry continues to be on life support, those jobs just aren’t out there. There has to be a thought about it from the standpoint of employees, where most of them don’t have jobs to go back to if they’d be willing to. Obviously there’s a lot of health risks that go along with that. The inability of the government as a whole to address this major sector of the economy in any effective or comprehensive way, it pisses me off.
A: It just pisses me off too, Zach. Iowa did a good thing. They made to-go cocktails permanent, which is awesome. There’s just no leadership. There’s no leadership at the top, from our federal government. There’s not a lot of leadership in the state governments. There’s a lot of people that want to sing the praises of Gov. Cuomo here in New York, but there hasn’t been a lot of strong leadership. I keep thinking about why this bar on Saturday night was packed and why it felt insane on that sidewalk. I do remember the bartender who served someone a cocktail when I was standing there. I overheard him say, “By the way, this consumption is for here.” While we are letting them sell these cocktails, we’re also saying, “No open containers.” The SLA in New York is saying you can sell to go, but no one can open the cocktail, walk down the sidewalk, and consume it. Why not? So now the bar is freaked out about that happening and then get fined because it’s their responsibility a lot of times if that happens. I have seen friends of mine who own bars in the city, posting on Instagram: “If you come and buy drinks from us, either consume them here or please take them home. Please do not walk down the street and drink them or go sit on someone’s stoop.” That’s just stupid. Why can’t we assume that everyone’s an adult, relax those laws, and then that would allow for some of this insane amount of gathering to thin out? We could actually keep flattening the curve. It’s like we want to flatten the curve, but we don’t want to flatten the curve. We want to do just enough so it feels like we’re doing something, but not enough that allows businesses to still survive because we don’t want to pay them subsidies or treat everyone like an adult who can walk down the street drinking a drink. It’s infuriating.
E: It seems like an un-winnable situation.
E: I don’t see what the solution is unless there really is a subsidy situation. That has to happen. At some point, the government, or people have to lobby to say when we come out of this, we need there to be functioning businesses that we can go to. As a society, we value functioning bars a part of the cultural fabric of America. Unless we do that, there is probably no future for the vast majority of bars who are going to keep limping along. Then, the rules keep changing. There’s just no way to know how or when they’re going to change, or how you can move forward to plan for a sustainable business in the future.
A: It’s so depressing. But it is what it is. There really is no solution. Every time we talk about this topic, from the first month in, to a few months later when we talked about stuff like this again to now. We always keep coming back to the same thing, which is, we could do all these Band-Aid things. We can throw restaurants and bars rotting carrots. But then, we’re going to beat them with sticks. The only real solution is the government stepping in and helping. It really is. It’s not just our industry. In the arts, I keep thinking about people I know who are musicians and actors. They’re all screwed, too. The government has to step up and help all these people. If it doesn’t, then we’re going to be in a really bad place in six to 12 months. We really are. One of the biggest solutions here, is vote these f*ckers out. They are basically unwilling to do anything to help normal people in this country. It’s time for them to go.
E: I agree.
Z: Boy, I was hoping this would leave me in a better mood for the holiday weekend.
A: Sorry, Zach. But, there’s nothing better to talk about before a holiday weekend than how to get politically active to make change in our country.
E: That’s true. We are talking about Independence Day here.
A: It’s time to get more politically active. The drinks industry got incredibly active to fight the tariffs. It’s time for the drinks industry to get active again to speak out. Anyone who listens to this podcast, who supports bars and restaurants, even if you don’t work in them, get politically active, write to your city council people. Write your assembly members and the senate members in your state and your governors and your lieutenant governors. Write your federal representatives. Tell them they need to help. Unfortunately, there’s very little that municipal governments can do without federal support. It just is what it is. You need to put the pressure on your federal elected officials to tell them that they need to help these industries. If they don’t, your city can do as much as it possibly can and it won’t be enough without federal government help.
Z: That’s very true.
A: On that note, I hope everyone listening to the podcast had a great and restful holiday weekend. For you two going into the holiday weekend, I hope you have a great holiday weekend as well.
Z: Thanks, Adam.
A: I will talk to everyone next week.
Z: Sounds great.
A: Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits: VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy, and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.