Opening and closing (and opening and closing) a new bar during a pandemic

Joel Oliphint
Scotty Niemet

Daddy’s is Scotty Niemet’s dream. After booking shows and throwing dance parties for more than half of his life, he now has a space he can call his own. And in mid-February, when Niemet first opened the doors to his South Side gay bar, everything was going just as he’d hoped it would — better, in fact.

“That first month was just unbelievable,” Niemet said. “We were doing everything right.”

Then, on March 15, exactly a month after the venue’s soft opening, Ohio’s stay-at-home orders went into place, and Daddy’s closed its doors.

Like most small business owners, Niemet had no idea how long the orders would last or how much havoc the novel coronavirus would wreak. As the shutdown stretched on, Niemet, his husband and Daddy’s management began doing beer deliveries to bring in a little income while also making sure the bar’s stockpile of perishable alcohol didn’t go to waste. They did a run of T-shirts and hoodies. Olliver Lifestyle, owned by Niemet’s husband, made a Daddy’s benefit candle.

Those measures enabled Daddy’s to bring back a few part-time staffers. Initially the bar had a staff of 15, but the place was so new that applying for a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program didn’t make sense. Niemet didn’t even have an official payroll system set up yet. He did, however, apply for and receive an SBA Disaster loan of $10,000. “By now that money is gone, just from paying rent and bills,” Niemet said.

Finally, the weekend of June 26, Daddy’s reopened as a socially distant version of its former self. The initial vision of the bar was to be a venue for dance parties, but those are out of the question in the COVID era. So Niemet purchased beer garden tables and used a tape measure to see how many he could fit in the space while still keeping patrons 6 feet apart. He got a huge box of sanitizer from Middle West Spirits and set up a sanitizing station. He designated a spot at the bar where customers could order drinks.

Patrons were asked to remain seated and socialize only with the people at their table, and masks had to be worn whenever they weren’t seated. Staffers would “walk around and zap people” with a temperature gun, too, Niemet said.

That reopening weekend also doubled as a birthday party for Niemet, who got an eye-opening look at what it was like to run a bar in the COVID era. “It was kind of mind-blowing how much a bar has to babysit people,” Niemet said. “It didn't feel like a dangerous situation, but I’d have to tell my friends, ‘Yo, you have to sit down.’ And they’re like, ‘Um, I'm talking to this person.’ And it’s like, ‘No, you can't. It’s who you come with. That's who you hang out with.'”

By the next weekend, the staff had switched some things around, and patrons seemed to be more educated on the do’s and don’ts of socializing. Then on Saturday, July 4, Niemet heard from an employee who’d worked as a happy hour bartender the night before. The employee had tested positive for COVID-19.

Right away, Niemet, his husband and two others went to get tested, which involved going to testing sites that were closed for the holiday, then waiting at the Riverside Hospital emergency room before being told testing wasn’t available, then going to the emergency room at Grant Medical Center and, after putting up a stink, finally getting tested. All the tests came back negative.

On Monday afternoon, Daddy’s announced the positive employee test on Facebook. “To be as safe as possible, we will be closing and deep cleaning the bar for the next 2 weeks. We never wanted to put patrons or employees at risk by reopening. It’s a sad truth that regardless of the precautionary measures a bar may take, it is not always a safe environment during this time,” the statement read, in part.

“We decided to shut down for two weeks just to make sure we don't end up getting symptoms, because we immediately got tested. And we want to make sure no one else on the staff ends up getting symptoms in the next couple weeks,” said Niemet, who knew he had to put safety first, but also knew how much closing again would hurt Daddy’s. “We're already financially struggling. We still have to pay rent. … We're just trying to stay transparent and trying to make ends meet.”

“I've been so stressed out — are we going to get backlash? Will people be like, ‘See, they opened up and they were irresponsible.’ We're just trapped in a corner,” Niemet continued. “I don't want people to feel like the employee is at fault, either. They shouldn't be victim blaming.”

Niemet also worries that in two weeks COVID cases could be on the rise again, perhaps from people traveling and attending parties over the July 4 weekend. He’s brainstorming ways to reopen a dance-centric bar without any dancing and social mingling and still make it a fun, communal place to be. Maybe he’ll host more drag bingo events. It’s all up in the air. The survival of Daddy’s is an open question. Some days it seems possible. Other days it doesn’t.

“It's such an important vision that we had going into this. It would be really disheartening if it's not able to make it through. But I feel like we have so much support from Columbus,” he said. “Thinking back to that first month — that's where the optimism comes in.”