We would slide between the crowded bar stools to order a cocktail, push tables together to include more friends, and squeeze next to strangers on the dance floor.
Social clubs came by the name rightly.
Amid the coronavirus, though, that communal culture clashes with the very steps bar owners are required to take to be open.
“We are suggesting things that are contrary to the very nature of their business,” said Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for Salt Lake County Health Department. “People go to bars and dance clubs to socialize with people outside of who they are living with.”
And, he added, “they don’t really lend themselves to social distancing.”
Still, with most of Utah operating in the yellow (low risk) and green (new normal) phases during the pandemic, bars and clubs are making it work.
They have to — to survive.
Just like restaurants that reopen, bars are removing tables and blocking off booths to ensure 6-foot distances between groups. Some are requiring guests to make reservations and wear face coverings when not seated. There’s no more bellying up to the bar — servers take orders and deliver drinks to tables. Groups are capped at 10 people.
Kirk Bengtzen — the owner of Twist bar in Salt Lake City, the only area of Utah still in the orange or moderate level — has taken other precautions not mandated by the state like temperature checks and hand-sanitizing before patrons enter while allowing only one person in the restroom at a time.
“We’re going to follow this process indefinitely — or until we have a vaccine,” he said. “There’s just no reason not to do it.”
With fewer tables, Twist is operating at about half its normal capacity, Bengtzen said, but he has hired a full-time staff to implement all the safety protocols.
He recently received permission to expand the patio into the cul-de-sac adjacent to the bar, at 32 Exchange Place, which will add another eight tables and “be extremely helpful” for his bottom line.
“We’re still losing money,” he said, “but it’s getting better every month.”
Salt Lake City and other municipalities have relaxed regulations regarding the use of public property for food service and other retail sales as a way to help businesses expand their footprints.
Backlash over masks and other bar restrictions has been minimal, Bengtzen said. “We’ve only had a couple little issues.”
And it hasn’t been from the 20- and 30-somethings. “It’s actually been from older people who feel like they can make their own decisions,” he said. “They can — just not in my establishment.”
The risk factor
Just how risky is a bar?
The Texas Medical Association, which ranked more than three dozen activities from low to high risk, ranks it at 9 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Getting takeout at your favorite restaurant and shopping for groceries are relatively low risk. Sending kids to school, working a week in an office building and swimming in a public pool carry moderate risks. Going to large concerts, sports stadiums and, yes, bars is high.
While there has been no coronavirus outbreak associated with a bar in Utah, a doorman at a popular bar on Park City’s Main Street was diagnosed with COVID-19, marking a turning point in the state.
In other states, though, bars have been hot spots for contracting the virus. One of the most publicized happened at a Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub, a popular college student hangout in Lansing, Mich., that has been linked to more than 150 coronavirus cases since mid-June.
Health officials warn that bars and nightclubs bring a dangerous blend: socializing in large groups and often in small spaces. Consuming alcohol also lowers inhibitions, and people forget to wear masks or maintain physical distance.
Patrons also tend to talk louder in a crowded bar, increasing the prospect of spraying COVID-19-carrying particles on others.
Because of that, many Utah bars have remained closed.
“We would love nothing more than to be opened, but our main priority is the safety of our employees and our patrons,” the owners of Campfire Lounge in Salt Lake City posted on Facebook. “At this time, we cannot see how we can effectively open and follow all of the guidelines and also provide a great and safe experience for our customers and our staff.”
Many bars may never be back in business.
“Our industry is on the brink of a full collapse,” said Michael Eccleston, co-owner with Katy Willis of Quarters Arcade Bar in Salt Lake City.
The recent closures of the Mazza Mediterranean cafe in the 9th and 9th neighborhood and Cannella’s in the heart of downtown are “just the first of many,” he said. “We’re going to lose a lot of great places and well-established places.”
The full impact of the coronavirus on bars will likely be known shortly after Aug. 31, the deadline for renewing a bar license with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. (The actual deadline was May 31, but the DABC offered business owners a three-month extension because of virus.)
Quarters, which has about 7,000 square feet of underground space, is operating at about a third of its normal capacity, Willis said. “The bar is still fun, and there is plenty of room to spread out.”
Bars that have reopened aren’t necessarily packed with customers, she said. “Most people aren’t ready to come out yet.”
Some bar owners are making physical adjustments to enhance safety before opening.
For example, Water Witch, in Salt Lake City’s Central Ninth neighborhood, postponed its opening until July 31 so it could update its heating and cooling systems and add ultraviolet lighting to help reduce the transmission of bacteria and viruses, said co-owner Sean Neves.
“It’s such a tiny little bar,” he said. “There were safety concerns.”
When Kelly and Camille Howard, owners of Prohibition, reopened their speak-easy-themed club in Murray in May, they decided to put more emphasis on food.
Before the virus, “we made most of our money on alcohol,” Kelly Howard said. “Now we’re making money on the food.”
He said revenue used to be 70% to 30% in favor of alcohol; now it’s 50% for each.
The Howards like the change.
“People used to be elbow to elbow, and sometimes it was standing room only,” he said. “It’s more intimate now. It has that cozy, speak-easy feel.”