If you’ve been on social media recently, you’ve probably seen the images: People happily posing at bars or at tables in a parking lot, always making sure to tell you in the caption that despite how it looks, they’re practicing social distancing while they enjoy cheap margaritas.
But for those who are still basically quarantining — because the curve isn’t even close to flattening — such pictures are a stain on the timeline. It’s a party they’re not invited to/unable to attend. Moreover, it risks potentially spiking said curve even higher.
To that end, once states began to reopen across the country starting in early May, COVID case numbers have soared. Most experts now agree that the reopening stage, particularly in regards to restaurants and bars, happened too quickly, even with strict safety regulations in place such as operating at 50 percent capacity, mandatory mask-wearing and parking-lot dining rooms. As a result, some states have put bars back on lockdown, including Michigan, where people in their 20s are on track to become the age demographic with the majority of new cases.
Dr. Anthony Fauci himself has pointed to bars as being particularly problematic, testifying at a late June Senate hearing, “Bars: Really not good. Really not good. Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really gotta stop that right now.”
While safety protocols might make patrons feel safe hitting the bar, the people working behind them feel far from it. Adam, who has been in the bar business for 13 years in Arizona, says that although the bar he works at follows every safety protocol available, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. “The staff’s masks protect the patrons, but the patrons take off the masks that protect the staff,” he argues. “Masks are required by both parties within banks, retail stores, gas stations, markets, health facilities, and soon, educational facilities. But not bars. Servers and bartenders are not-so-quietly being put at great risk. Despite all of our cleaning, there’s nothing we can do about airborne contact with dine-in service allowances.”
He adds that most cooks where he works don’t wear masks either due to the high temperatures in the kitchen.
A Northern California bartender who wishes to remain anonymous found the brief window when bars were open in her town to be incredibly stressful, in large part due to management’s lax attitude toward safety guidelines. “Our operations manager thought COVID was basically the flu, so masks weren’t mandatory and hand sanitizer was out,” she tells me. “A lot of us were upset about the lack of concern for our safety. It seemed like the owners just wanted to open up ASAP to make money again, which we understand, but weren’t willing to risk our lives for.”
When a small group of employees got close to hiring a union lawyer, things tightened up quickly. “We were given signs to put up at the bar and seats we didn’t want people to sit at, every employee was required to wear a mask and masks were lightly suggested for customers,” she continues. “It felt very fake, like the way a bully tries to apologize on the playground right before the kid they punched goes to tattle.”
She was relieved, then, when California Governor Gavin Newsom closed bars again in early July after cases rose dramatically in the state.
Unfortunately, W.M., a bartender in L.A., wasn’t so lucky. The place she works has an outdoor patio and has moved service into the parking lot as well. Although most of the staff would love to continue to quarantine, they can’t afford to. “Shortly after reopening was announced, we received an email from management saying that we’d be open soon, and that if we didn’t accept work, we would 1) get reported to unemployment that we refused work and potentially lose our benefits; and 2) not get re-hired in the future,” she says.
Although Adam and his fellow employees were given the option to not work if they didn’t feel comfortable, they felt responsible for helping fill the hours needed to honor his employer’s PPP loan. Still, it sucks. “I’m jealous of the headstrong people living their lives like nothing is different, and I’m disappointed with their lack of empathy or contribution,” he says. “I do have some regulars who play by the rules, but it all still feels senseless.”
Adam blames some of the more unruly behavior on the fact that closing booze-only bars has led to restaurants and food-service bars being overrun by club and bar enthusiasts looking for places to party. “I have half as many bar stools, and my personal sales are very close to pre-COVID levels,” he tells me. “This crowd comes late, drinks a lot and wants to socialize, but they don’t respect courtesies or precautions. Basically, they’re difficult to wrangle without being a dick. If a large chunk of your sensible patrons are distancing and quarantining, that leaves a higher ratio of customers who are perhaps less than sensible.”
W.M. generally agrees, but she also adds, “One of my theories as to why so many customers have been assholes is that behind a mask they can’t see a woman’s smile. This has informed all of my shitty interactions with so many people while working during COVID-19, especially men. If a woman isn’t smiling while serving you, she’s a real bitch. That’s how this world works when you’re a woman in any kind of service — or just a woman period.”
Along those lines, she recently had to deal with two unmasked men who got extremely belligerent with her when she told them to leave. “One started yelling at me, ‘You’ve been a fucking bitch since we walked in here.’” As she escorted them down the stairs and out the front door, he yelled once more: ‘You’re a brainwashed bitch. Go suck a dick.’ To which I replied, ‘I probably will — soon.’”
Across the country in Washington, D.C., things aren’t going any better. Kate, a bartender who has been in the business for nearly 25 years, has had to deal with out-and-out corona truthers. “When we first reopened, a party of 12 came in and sat inside. I tried to seat them at four different tables, but they insisted on one long one. I overheard one lady in the group whisper, ‘I heard on Hannity last night…’ as I was walking away,” she tells me.
It got progressively worse from there. “All of the apps and desserts were shared, and they were drinking out of each other’s glasses,” she continues. “It was pretty gross. Some of the older guys tried to hit on me and complained about my mask and how they couldn’t see me smile. They thought all of the regulations were bullshit. I’ve talked to so many people who think this is a hoax. That it’s a mind-control experiment.”
Making matters worse, the owner of Kate’s bar is still skeptical about the whole situation, despite the fact that her GM has been out for two months with the virus. “He thinks the whole virus is overblown and that it’s like the flu. He doesn’t monitor the staff or really cares to. He’ll wear a mask around guests but that’s about it,” she says. “Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one who really knows just how dangerous COVID can be.”
And although some people are tipping more, some are not. In particular, W.M. cites the messages she gets on credit card slips in lieu of tips. “On my first day back, a woman had several Jägerbombs and later wrote on the credit-card slip, ‘Life is short, be happy.’ Another time, two Chad Fuckfaces left no tip, just messages. One said, ‘Lighten up’; the other said, ‘Be a little nicer.’”
It’s hard to “lighten up,” though, when Adam says you spend your whole shift obsessing over everything that could go wrong. “If they’re so brazen in my bar, I can only assume they’re brazen elsewhere — large gatherings, other bars, no mask at work, who knows,” he says. “Our minds run away from us, and we spend 10-hour shifts pretty paranoid. Some servers have left crying from customer abuse on top of the added stress and responsibility.”
W.M. has definitely let out some tears on the job. “My hands are cracking and bleeding from having been covered in bleach and alcohol [because of all the excessive cleaning]. My face breaks out in rashes from being covered by a face mask in the heat. If I was working at a grocery store, at least I’d feel like I was helping people survive,” she says.
“I now truly understand that the government cares more about the economy than human life.”