A bar manager reflects on what it's like when the work he loves becomes the front line of a pandemic

Friday mornings, I let myself sleep in. It’s a small luxury that I justify because I’ll be up until 4 a.m. for the rest of the weekend. Not rushing to any of my responsibilities is the final reprieve before flipping my sleep schedule to close the bar. Today, I woke up to my COVID-19 test results in my email—negative. The test wasn’t required, but after half a dozen bars on the street had positive cases on their staff, I wanted to ease my mind.

This relief is temporary. In a few hours, I’ll lace up my boots, grab my bar key and mask, and walk up the street. There used to be comfort in this ritual. When I finished grad school, the community I found behind the bar kept me from moving back East. Seeing someone I know every time I walk the neighborhood is a form of security unfamiliar to me, one that nurtures and challenges me. But going to work tonight just means I need to let yet another health worker decked out in powder blue PPE cram that swab into my sinus.

I manage a high-volume bar. My job is to pour liquor for wave after wave of customers crashing into the counter. Before the pandemic, on an 80-degree Friday, we would be packed with customers from bathroom line to patio fence, from happy hour to last call. Every guest in their summer best, their skin sun-soaked, the neon lights throwing a red glow into glasses of beer. The music was so loud the only way to communicate was by shouting into someone’s face. We provided a stage for the neighborhood to play out the adventure of its evening. On the best nights, there was a sense of levity in the air, like old friends reuniting. And on the other end, we were breaking up fights or telling rude customers to leave. The usual night would vacillate between these extremes. It wasn’t a venue for temperance, and that was the point. You didn’t fret over the spilled drink, the popcorn kernels crunching under your shoes. You were in the middle of a house party you didn’t have to clean up after, and there was fun to be had in that lawlessness.

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When the announcement was made that we had to close in March, I was on my way in for a mid-shift. I remember being pissed. This was before I understood the scope of the problem, the danger of the virus. We had an impromptu meeting after the 9 p.m. closure to talk about furloughs. Every staff member, from manager to security, was effectively laid off. We discussed best practices for navigating unemployment, new terrain for all of us.

Then we drank everything perishable in the bar’s fridges and all the wine that would be turned by the time we reopened, and sat at home with this fog hanging over the future, waiting to be called back. Some of my staff, because of how taxes were filed at their previous job, were getting a fifth of their normal earnings per week in unemployment before the CARES Act. Some never saw a penny or made it through the help line to find out why. Our industry is already an uncertain one. If you have a good job with steady money, you hang on to it because literally nothing is guaranteed.

Over the next eight weeks, I settled into my quarantine, reading books to escape the news where I would see the same politicians who shut us down telling us we now had to get back to work. There was an implication that we were lazy or on vacation.

Yet we learned quickly that our business can make the pandemic worse. And as soon as we learned just how dangerous it was, we were forced to confront the reality of wading back in. How did it make sense to serve drinks to patrons leaving their work-from-home orders to congregate in public?

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Before I began managing the bar three years ago, I was a graduate student, teaching composition and creative writing at Ohio State. You learn, in these kinds of roles, that you can teach someone anything, but you can’t make them care. Whether it’s organizing a liquor shelf correctly or using MLA citations, it’s not difficult to give someone the tools for the task, but inspiring them to want to succeed is much more difficult.

We’ve been open now for as long as we sat dormant during the stay-at-home order. We follow all the rules, but it doesn’t take long to see the flaws in the plan. Parties must stay separated and seated without mingling. But if you have three parties of nine, and they break up and regroup at three different bars, what kind of social distancing is actually taking place? These rules may give the appearance of safety to onlookers, but in reality provide little protection.

I won’t try to tell you about aerosols or droplets, but I trust the scientists who’ve spent their lives devoted to the study of viruses. I can’t help but wonder, as I lean into the back bar watching customers spit-laugh and close-talk, why they aren’t worried about it as well.

A few weeks before the state mandate, we started requiring masks for customers. If they didn’t own a mask, we provided them one. Our staff has been wearing them since reopening. Yet when I gesture for a customer with their mask down on their chin to cover their face, they groan as they pull it up—and then pull it down again to order. I shouldn’t have to tell them it’s my safety I’m concerned for, but I do.

On a night when we are at our seated capacity with several parties waiting outside, a customer asks why the bar is “dead.” Is it because we’re requiring masks? They tell me the vibe isn’t the same. But that’s kind of the point. High volume bars should not feel like they used to.

***

It’s no shock that we can’t make people care about new regulations any more than we can make them care about their safety, or the safety of their community. It’s also no surprise to see customers taking out their hostility on service professionals.

I’ve been in this job long enough to be able to tell you that it’s not just pouring beer. We’re there before you arrive and after you leave. We’ll tell you everything you want to know about the draft selection and don’t care when you order the usual anyway. We kick out that guy who made you feel unsafe and throw our bodies between your friends when they pick fights in the bar. Many patrons treat us accordingly and tip with the understanding that we’re there to serve, but we’re not servants. But even if these people are the majority, the indignities are what stand out. That unsavory story you’ve heard about a service professional being harassed, or commanded to do something to satisfy a customer with the implication that they have to do it for the tip—this has happened to all of us. It’s only a question of when it will happen again. God help you if you’re a woman or a marginalized person. For years, people have been told that the customer is always right, and this notion has bred a sense of entitlement. Coupled with the fact that hospitality professionals are stretched uncomfortably between the bar or restaurant that employs them and the customer who pays them, it’s no surprise that the industry has become a place where you must weigh your health against your income.

As a manager, I have a good job with benefits, but that’s not the norm. The work is grueling and fast-paced, and when those good summer days come, the money is good. But there is no safety net for our business. For most, our income is reliant on volume, and the new state mandates, rightfully, limit that volume—and therefore our income.

***

As I’m completing this essay, coronavirus infections are increasing in Ohio, and the governor has responded with a 10 p.m. curfew on bars. The CARES act has ended. Our income is being strangled to an absolute minimum. The solution seems easy. Pay service professionals to sit this out, to stay safe, to let the virus count get down to a point where we can resume our work without spreading plague. Protect the business owners from the terrible choice between losing their livelihood and putting their staff at risk.

Instead, we’re being thrown to the front line of this issue in a community whose only desire is to return to “normal” with no regard to how that affects others’ safety.

A lot of voices in my community are calling, not for a return to normal, but for a moment of change. The fallout COVID-19 has caused in the industry is a devastating low point for bars and restaurants nationwide, one that many businesses will not recover from. But to strive to return simply to what came before would only set us up to suffer again when and if another emergency arises. Yes, small businesses in this nation need a safety net for this unprecedented crisis, but that will not resolve the disparity in labor security for industry professionals, nor the mistreatment we suffer. Now is the time for real change to be created—and there are solutions. Co-op bars for workers to have control over their own fates. A real look at what abolishing tips could mean for job security. The acceptance of national health care to take the burden off small businesses and provide our workforce with a means to maintain its well-being.

In the meantime, if you are going to be in a bar, be respectful of the rules. Wear a mask. Tip well. You are a guest in our house.