LGBTQ+ nightlife resumes this weekend — sort of

Bob Vitale
Union Cafe in the Short North

After more than two months of literal Netflix and chill, people finally will return to Axis tomorrow night — to watch TV. Leave it to RuPaul to plan a global pandemic, worldwide lockdown and the reopening of nonessential businesses all just to hype a season finale of “Drag Race.”

But as Columbus’ biggest gay bar gets back to business, eyes glued to television screens won’t be the only thing that makes the scene more reminiscent of the last 60-plus nights at home than the last 20 years on its crowded dance floor.

For one thing, there will be no dancing at Axis. There will also be fewer tables, no queueing up for drinks at the bar and digital tipping only for drag queens, who will perform via livestream during commercial breaks of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” (Virginia West will also remotely perform two livestreamed shows later Friday night.)

“It’s going to be a reframe of what comes to mind when you think of Axis,” said Chelsey Klube, chief marketing officer for Axis and its Short North sister venue, Union.

A week after outdoor patios opened at a handful of Columbus gay bars, indoor spaces are about to reopen at most. The Toolbox, at 744 Frebis Ave., was planning to open one minute after midnight Thursday morning. Southbend, at 126 E. Moler St. in Merion Village, and O’Connor’s Club 20, at 20 E. Duncan St. in the University District, open later Thursday.

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AWOL, at 49 E. Parsons Ave. in Olde Towne East, and Cavan Irish Pub, at 1409 S. High St., plan Friday openings. Axis, at 775 N. High St., and Union, at 782 N. High St., will open as well. (Club Diversity says it will reopen June 1, and Slammers will reopen on June 2. Tremont Lounge, Boscoe’s and Daddy’s haven’t announced reopening plans yet.)

As LGBTQ+ nightlife resumes, though, don’t expect gay-bar versions of last weekend’s scenes from Standard Hall, which prompted warnings from Gov. Mike DeWine that state officials won’t tolerate a retreat from Ohio’s fight against the novel coronavirus. Bar owners and managers, in interviews and Facebook posts, vow to go beyond state requirements for bar and restaurant reopenings:

  • Cavan and AWOL are requiring people to wear masks when ordering a drink or talking to the bartender. The two bars also are asking people to empty their own tables as a way of reducing physical interactions among staff and customers.
  • Club 20 says it will take people’s temperatures at the door and won’t let in those with a high temperature or symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Southbend, which is asking customers to wear masks when ordering, says it won’t let people in when its reduced number of chairs are full.

Gay bars have always served as de facto community centers for LGBTQ individuals, a safe space where people can celebrate or commiserate together. That role, owners and managers say, makes bars protective of their customers and customers protective of their bars.

Those that opened their patios a week ago reported no problems with social distancing or other new rules.

“Coming into this, I was very nervous,” said J.R. Jones, who manages Club 20. “Everyone was very respectful, though. Everyone felt comfortable around each other. I think when people come into a gay bar they expect it to be a safe space.”

Said Matthew Mefferd, the owner of both AWOL and Cavan: “We have been a safe space for so long that I think the patrons want to help us stay open so we can continue that tradition.”

Mefferd said the state’s go-ahead for reopening caught him by surprise, but he and the staff at his bars decided to go ahead as soon as possible in an effort to help set the tone for how a new bar experience might be in Columbus.

Klube said Axis and Union watched last weekend’s reopenings around town and wanted to implement their own plans more slowly.She said she expects no problems, either. “We do have a different demographic, somewhat,” she said when asked about the scenes from Standard Hall and other Columbus bars. “Queer safe spaces and gay bars are a little more sacred to people.”

The Ohio Department of Health requires employees at bars and restaurants to wear masks, and it says the businesses can’t prevent customers from wearing them. Parties of 10 or more are prohibited and must be seated at a socially distant 6 feet apart. People must stay seated while eating or drinking.

Klube said Union and Axis aren’t requiring masks for customers, but she encouraged people to wear them while ordering. Sunday Church at Axis and Sunday Showtunes at Union will resume, but Union’s popular Sunday brunch buffet is off the menu for the time being.

On Wednesday, Klube said staff were still working out the details for smoking areas and restrooms.