Nikki DeWald, of Blondie’s Bar in the Mission, pictured, says she won’t let COVID end her legacy. (Courtesy Blondie’s Bar)

Post-lockdown bar openings: too little, too late?

Business owners are jaded, struggling

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Solo time during the pandemic has brought discordant waves of emotion. Sometimes I feel at peace in my mind, curled up with a good book, watching the rain and catching up on TV shows I probably never would have watched. Other moments are insufferably lonely.

I’ve sung the sad tune before: my friends are in their bubbles, with their roommates, lovers and families, and during indefinite lockdown, I pretty much nixed picnics or even a public bench to sit with people and catch up over coffee. My only real social outing in the past month was a trip to Stonestown Galleria with a friend. The clerk at a soon-to-be-shuttering Aldo shoe store perked right up— it clearly had been awhile since someone visited her.

I’m elated to see limited reopenings, even if it doesn’t mean immediate improvement on the social side — at least now I can go somewhere and get iced tea or some other drink. But I sort of wondered if the world of commerce collapsed. I did a quick check-in with several bars recently about how they’ve fared in the lockdown, asking what money they’ve raised, how their parklets are faring, the general health of their business and also how they’re feeling.

“How has the business been faring? Not great, to be perfectly frank,” said Jeff Lyon, an owner at Third Rail in the Dogpatch neighborhood at 628 20th St.

“We would have had to shut down without grants and loans. That said, even the initial [paycheck protection program] loan didn’t help us too much because we didn’t have enough work for all our furloughed employees to come back on the payroll in order to use the loan in a way that would be forgiven,” Lyon said.

He noted that other grants and a “really successful GoFundMe” helped employees and might hopefully help the bar live on in 2021. Lyon was out of town when he messaged but hopes to come back and safely open the bar “as soon as possible,” he said.

“I imagine that ‘back to normal’ business still might not happen until 2022, but maybe I’ve become a little jaded from the 2020 Dumpster fire,” he added.

At Blondie’s Bar in the Mission (540 Valencia St.), owner Nikki DeWald said her venue has been open eight total weeks since the first shutdown in March 2020. She mentioned isolation brought her to a tipping point twice since the pandemic hit.

At first, she said, “I was able to spend all day every day with my husband and son and enjoy a little ‘break.’ I was still OK until the four-month mark, but by August, I hit my first ‘COVID wall.’ I was going a little nuts in my three-person bubble.”

DeWald and her staff were elated to work in October, even though she had to reduce to a skeleton crew in order to keep paying bills. Then the chilly weather hit, infection rates climbed and more people moved out of San Francisco.

“Then after getting a taste of the new normal, we were forced to close again,” DeWald said.

DeWald did get a PPP loan but no other grants, she noted. The PPP loan was gone “in the blink of an eye,” she said, and in the current situation, she’s funneled significant personal funds into Blondie’s.

“I have applied for several grants, and even being a woman-run family business of 30 years, I guess that’s just not enough,” she said.

“Small business is the fabric that weaves community, and it’s a sad realization that our government doesn’t address the needs of mom-n-pop businesses before they become extinct,” DeWald noted, but added optimistically: “I have been in business for a very long time and will not allow COVID to end my legacy.”

Phil Chen, principal of Alchemist Bar at 679 Third St., shared similar woes about grant applications. He said The City ignored a Shared Spaces application that the bar submitted after paying $4,000 for renovations to its parklet. Likewise, their application for the state COVID-19 grant program was postponed, he added.

The bar did not run a GoFundMe, instead relying on takeout orders to keep the business running.

“Orders were slow, so we paid our staff with our savings,” Chen said.

The Alchemist parklet reopened Friday, Jan. 29 with plans to run every day.

“We are grateful to be opening,” Chen said. “We are staying hopeful and positive, and we’re looking forward to helping our industry family recover.”

John Caine, owner of Hidive at Pier 28 1/2, struck a similar optimistic note, saying they’ve “stayed the course” and done to-go orders since Dec. 7. He noted also that he his venue has not received any grants.

“On sunny days it works well,” he said of to-go orders. “On cold days, hazy days, foggy days, smoky days and rainy days, we are challenged with less-than-optimum foot traffic on the Embarcadero. It’s usually such a busy sidewalk, great people-watching!”

Peter Glikshtern, founder of Jones (620 Jones St.) and also owner of the Midway (900 Marin St.) had some choice words about the shutdowns in March and the most recent one.

“This last shutdown has been devastating. A crushing blow. Like, f—k! Not this again. Why?”

Prior to the most recent shutdown, he said an estimated more than 70 employees were working at the Midway during the pandemic.

“None of them contracted the virus in the five months we were doing our ‘outdoor, distanced, DJ dining.’ Not a one!” he said, then added: “We did 100 tables, all either four and six-tops, three, sometimes four days a week. That’s 1,500 to 2,000 guests every week over the course of 20 weeks, and not a single one of our staff got sick. And not a single case was traced back to The Midway. Tell me again why we had to close, please?”

He did not say how the Midway was doing now. But its website lists two Feb. 13 outdoor performances and “dining experiences” with a ticket price starting at $175 for tables that seat up to four people.

Glikshtern said Gov. Gavin Newsom had months to prepare for winter holiday infection spikes.

“And then the thing everyone knew would happen happened, and he had to try and look like he was doing something,” he said. “Restaurants are the most visible, and also the least organized segment of the economy. An easy target.”

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Read more of his content and buy his wares at saulsugarman.com. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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