“The biggest hurdle is our rent. As long as our landlord continues to work with us, that will make all the difference,” said Lisa Merrall, owner of Fireside. (Saul Sugarman/Special to S.F. Examiner)

What four Bay Area bar owners say about the future amid COVID-19

Bartenders share their thoughts on the outlook for their venues in the months ahead.

Just before the shelter-in-place order happened, I hosted my drugstore wine party in the Castro. As I walked up Collingwood Street to my friend’s home, I noticed bars spilling over with people. Lines snaked outside the venues— coronavirus be damned: people needed drinks. They needed laughs, and they needed each other. It was Sunday and sunny, and the looming threat of quarantine did little to stop a social creature’s want for connection.

Maybe it’s just a sense of routine, but something inside me thought that would resume this month. Then, once shelter-in-place extended into May, I figured we’d be back in bars by June or July. In talking to bar owners this week, though, the outlook is fairly square on the horizon that September into winter 2020 is the earliest they see opening their doors. No one really knows.

I thought I’d break this week from my typical entrée of cocktail recipes and fluffy interviews, and I called up some bar owners to get their thoughts on the outlook for their venues in the months ahead.

To save any suspense: Everyone I spoke to says they’re doing OK for now and plans to reopen eventually. Lots of landlords are “working with bars” to keep them as tenants. Aside from paying rent, other expenses are minimal for bar owners. But they miss their employees, their customers and friends. No guidance seems to exist on who gets to reopen first, and when they do, you may be getting a cocktail served from behind a plexiglass partition. Here’s what three San Francisco bar owners had to tell me, and one more in Oakland. I lightly edited these conversations into sound-bites:

Lisa Merrall

Owner of Fireside (603 Irving St.)

Fireside’s GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/fireside-bar-relief-fund

“It really just sucks on many levels. It sucks because my husband and I are out of work. At Fireside, the sense of community is greatly missed. I see people meeting in front of the bar and having a socially distant smoke or bringing a beer.”

“Some of our staff is really struggling financially. It’s hard to tell how this will all play out and what will open up first when businesses do reopen. When this all started, I was thinking we might open up again in September. But people are just kind of guessing what it will look like, and when.”

She told me Fireside still plans to reopen.

“The biggest hurdle is our rent. As long as our landlord continues to work with us, that will make all the difference. So long as that’s the case, we will absolutely plan on coming back.”

Charlie Stuart Evans

Co-owner of Lone Star Saloon (1354 Harrison St.)

Lone Star Saloon’s GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-lone-star-saloon

On a positive note, Evans told me, “We’re using the time to renovate the bar. Normally, we’d never have time to do that because we’d have to close the bar. The process involves sanding, varnishing, and then leaving for a couple days. And then doing that again.”

“I’ve also done more T-shirt sales in the past two months than I have in the past three years. Everything helps, and it helps me because it gives me something to bloody do, you know.”

I asked Charlie how LGBTQ bars would be affected by the cancellations of Pride, Dore Alley and Folsom Street Fair events, which typically draw hundreds of thousands of attendees and tourists annually.

“I don’t need a huge event to fill my bar, so if there’s no huge event, those people may be more likely to come to me. With Folsom Street Fair, I think there’s discussion of presenting something virtual. So if that happens, I will put something virtual in my bar, and participate by having certain cameras set up in the bar.

“If we get through this time, these events will come back, they won’t be gone forever. And it will be better for us. The community is going to need a space to come back to after all of this, especially after all of this. It makes you realize how important coming together is.”

Evans was the most optimistic about the timeline to reopen: He expects some time in June.

“Smaller venues like mine who have a very low number of patrons, we might be able to open first.”

Marke Bieschke

Co-owner of The Stud (399 9th St.)

The Stud’s GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/studsf

“We’re not going down without a fight, that’s basically our attitude.”

Having said that, Bieschke noted, “Right now we are in a ‘see what happens’ mode. We’re not anticipating opening until the end of the year, for sure. One advantage we have is that we are not just a night club in terms of dance parties. We also do cabaret shows, and theaters might be able to open earlier because they can social distance with seats.”

“We miss our day-to-day operations. We miss our staff. I miss my family. It’s frustrating because we’re not getting help with rent and other expenses from the government. We’re just trying to keep our heads up, but it’s all a little depressing.”

He said their online drag shows have been very successful.

“The bring in some money, and that helps our performers get by. But unless we have 50 of them a week, we have to figure out plan B to stay afloat.”

Sean Sullivan

Owner of The Port Bar (2023 Broadway, Oakland, CA)

The Port Bar’s GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/hha7px-support-the-portstaff-relief-fund

“I feel really gratified that we have leaders in Oakland and the Bay Area and California that make science-based decisions and health-focused decisions for our community. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the help with our customers, and help with our staff through the crowd fund.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic. We will survive this. We will survive stronger the sooner we’re able to open, open the very day we’re allowed to open with social distancing precautions in place. Unfortunately, we don’t have any direction when that might be.”

He said the bar is thriving with its Big Gay Trivia and #Blessed Cabaret virtual events.

“Of course everyone’s eager to get back, but our individual drag queens have done great jobs increasing their graphic design and digital producing capabilities.”

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.

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