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When should bars reopen?

I had a picnic with an ex last week. It was my first significant time outdoors in San Francisco for several months. The City is not the same as the one I left in March to shelter in place with parents. At that point, people were ransacking Walgreens for toilet paper and posting prolifically on social media about what episode of “Black Mirror” we’re on, but San Francisco otherwise felt pretty normal — this all was just an uncomfortable joke, the latest in a string of virus scares that was near us but probably didn’t affect us.

Today, I see we’ve fully entered “The Twilight Zone.” Everyone is in face masks, signs are everywhere, and people give each other uncomfortable looks if someone gets within six feet of them. My hair looks like a banshee, or at least it did until I shaved off the sides with the last beard trimmer for sale at the store.

Now I look like a surprised cockatoo when I wake up.

At the picnic, the ex and I had to coordinate how to be safe while seeing each other: the separate blankets we’d sit on, where in the park we’d occupy that would be away from others, and would there be hand sanitizer? What struck me more, though, is how faux pas it all felt. Were we breaking the rules by seeing each other? How dare we risk our lives and our friends’ lives!

I see a lot of that online— people angrily shaming friends for celebrating birthdays or posting photos of hugging or picnics. For the record: I don’t sit in any one camp of thought about it. I want us all to be healthy, I’ve been in isolation as long as everyone else, and I don’t leave home, except for essential purposes of feeding myself and keeping my apparel business running.

But I also come from a past half a decade organizing events in nightclubs and bars. I remember my regulars, and as much as many were self-medicating their anxieties with good cocktails, others were soothing—in my view—an overwhelming sense of loneliness by being out of the home and social pretty much every night.

Health, to me, is not just avoiding coronavirus.

But tell that to the bars, whose owners told me earlier this month that we may not open them until September.

I don’t need to spell out how widespread the effect of COVID is — our events, concerts, movies, all gone for now. At first I really agreed with some of my cynical colleagues that this will be good. We’ll take a breather. “We were all getting so competitive,” a professor in my fashion school commented a few months ago. I agreed. Socializing—for me—had become not just about enjoying the experience as it had been about simply being seen and acknowledged as part of my community of peers who went out.

This moment really simplified for me the importance of my time spent with others, and I appreciated that at first. Then SF Pride got canceled, and then Folsom and Dore street fairs. This week, The Stud announced it’s closing its doors for good. Now I’m left wondering what The City will look like next year.

“I think people need to take a deep breath and realize that our grandparents—and human beings through a millennia before this—have gone through worse, but we will make it through this,” San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told me. “We’ve had a really good run of not having to deal with something like this for a long, long time.”

I asked him about when things might open and what restrictions might loosen for socializing, and he didn’t have an answer.

“We just don’t know. We have to follow the facts and the data and be measuring every step of the way,” he said.

I spoke to bar owners the last time I addressed this issue, so this week I took the question to my peers. When do they think bars should reopen?

“Bars and clubs are high risk. Nothing until a vaccine,” said Michael Westermann, a Corona Heights resident.

This was probably the most common sentiment I heard, from people whose caution extends beyond trace testing and who said they don’t plan to enter social spaces until there’s a medical plan.

“I would only be comfortable going to a bar when there is, at the very least, an effective treatment for COVID. And even then, I’d probably refrain if infection rates were going up,” said Theresa Von Dohlen, a Sunset resident.

Then there’s your middle-of-the-road faction that wants a hybrid plan. A friend last night texted about “clustering,” or as he described it, opening social circles, but only with others they trust to also be taking safety measures. Similarly, some peers debated whether a membership-based model could work for venues where they pre-plan events and screen those attending.

“I like the idea of memberships that pay for rapid testing, and if you’re negative, you can enter,” said Malcolm MacOmber, a Duboce Triangle resident. “Otherwise, until there’s a vaccine, it’s all just playing with fire and going to make this take longer.”

Mandelman and others also seemed encouraged by limited, controlled engagements outdoors in venues with patios like 620 Jones or The Lone Star Saloon (1354 Harrison St).

“I’d consider going to an outdoor patio with limited capacity in the coming weeks,” said Mark Noviski, a Cole Valley resident. “To support bars and clubs, we need to relax open-container laws and/or close off streets.”

A few people chimed in and said the risk is ours to take and that bars should open now, citing a couple other instances where rules had become that relaxed in other parts of the country. I silenced an explosive comment thread on social media where a family member likened taking chances with COVID to getting behind the wheel of a car every morning.

I’m uncomfortable giving my own opinion. I’m not a medical professional, and I’m not decided on what might be the best course of action, but I do know that last sentiment falls past my comfort zone. We began sometime in early March with “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve,” and now we’re at a place where many feel “not until there’s a vaccine.”

I’m waiting like everyone else to see if and when any sort of treatment appears.

Until then, though, I plan to wear a face mask, use hand sanitizer, and—yes—to see my friends and family, in ways that seem practical and that minimize risk, in small gatherings, apart from each other, preceded by conversations about what measures we’ve been taking to stay safe.

And I plan to continue writing about cocktails and the fabulous bartenders who make them.

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Last Call with Saul appears every other Sunday in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

Saul Sugarman

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