Bars and restaurants often get lumped together when discussing the effects that COVID-19 and the accompanying restrictions and guidelines will have on the industry. But the truth is they are very different, not just in practical ways but also less obvious behavioral ones. We go to restaurants primarily to eat and secondarily to socialize. Those objectives get flipped at bars, where the whole point is to be social – a near impossibility in the age of social distancing.
“Based on the restrictions, we, as cocktail bars, are likely the hardest hit in the food and beverage industry because it’s almost impossible to operate as a social place,” explains Stefan Was, owner of Porco Lounge
. “These restrictions have cut us off at the knees so that we can only operate at a fraction of our capacity."
In addition to the now-ubiquitous six-foot distancing rules and occupancy limits, standing in interior spaces is no longer permitted and bartenders must maintain a six-foot distance from bar patrons.
To reflect on the state of the cocktail bar in the age of Coronavirus, Was, Will Hollingsworth of Spotted Owl
and Paulius Nasvytis of Velvet Tango Room
met to consider possible next steps. What they all agreed upon was that whatever those steps happened to be, they would not take place before early August.
“I think what’s coming is a wholesale transformation of the way cocktail bars do business – at least for the next few years,” says Hollingsworth. “The three of us – we’re not speaking for anybody else – have come to a sort of conclusion that this is going to require a pretty serious transformation in the way we do business and we need time to figure out how to do that.”
The two months’ time will provide not only insight and best practices gleaned from other businesses that have elected to reopen, but also time to watch how the public responds and whether or not there’s another spike in Covid cases.
But more than that, they explain, it’s the safety of their respective staffs that sits top of mind. More and more, discussions surrounding the reopening of bars and restaurants are beginning to focus more on policing public behavior and how best to do that.
“We feel a tremendous responsibility for our people and one of our biggest concerns about the next few weeks and beyond is that our culture so immediately devolves into an us-versus-them mentality about people who are legitimately very concerned and people who are not,” says Hollingsworth. “I just imagine that bars might become this horrible battleground between those two people and I fear there will be a lot of ugliness in bars in particular because people will have some booze in them. I need to be really confident that we have systems in place to prevent that from happening before I’m ever going to put my people in that position.”
Regardless what the landscape looks like in a few months, Hollingsworth, Was and Nasvytis all agree that the cocktail bar will look nothing like its former self for a good, long while.
“We think it would be a mistake to believe that we could offer some competent facsimile of 2019,” adds Hollingsworth. “I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t think it’s going to work.”