Flashback 3/15/20: My Previously Unpublished Article About LA Bars Trying to Adapt to the Pandemic

— by Caroline on Crack

On this day a year ago, I was up in Lake Tahoe for a snowboard weekend. And since I don’t snowboard, my friends were enjoying the slopes while I stayed in the cabin. Just as well since I was working on this story for Eater LA about how LA bars were trying to adapt to the constantly changing news about the growing coronavirus pandemic. But within hours of my turning in the story, the shutdowns of bars/restaurants, everything, had begun. So naturally, my story was no longer relevant and wasn’t published.

But today I wanted to revisit it so am posting it here. Reading it again is like opening a time capsule. Back then we didn’t know how long this would go on for; some places closed “temporarily.” And this was before cocktails-to-go were allowed! It’s also sad to read because a lot of these bars remain closed; Bibo Ergo Sum permanently closed in June 2020.

Bibo Ergo Sum by Caroline on Crack

Bibo Ergo Sum 2020

LA Bars Struggle to Stay Open During Coronavirus

Angelenos are self-isolating in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and rightfully so. California Governor Gavin Newsom has called for the postponement or cancellation of mass gatherings and the LA Health Department recommends that the vulnerable people stay home. But while some L.A. restaurants have been able to pivot to takeout and delivery options, local bars are struggling to stay afloat while practicing social responsibility.

“Nobody knows what to do because nothing like this has ever happened before,” says Josh Goldman, owner of Yapa in Little Tokyo. “Every other public health crisis, natural disaster, economic downturn, recession, acts of terrorism didn’t make people afraid to be around each other. Bars are said to be recession-proof because, good or bad, people are always going to need a drink, which is still true. But people are afraid to be around people, so they’re just drinking at home.” 

Although the list of LA restaurants closing down for a few weeks continues to grow, most cocktail bars are – at the moment – opting to keep their doors open, alerting their customers of their plans via social media. 

It’s really pretty frightening

Cari Hah, big bar

The Spare Room, the cocktail lounge and bowling alley at the Hollywood Roosevelt, posted on its Instagram that it is “taking extra sanitary precautions,” including providing sanitizers and brand-new bowling balls. The Roger Room in West Hollywood assures its customers that its employees are following strict procedures regarding handwashing and bar cleanliness. In Downtown, Bar Franca is limiting its 100-person capacity to 40 people. The Burbank Pub continues to uphold its “rigorous and stringent cleaning procedures” but also respectfully asks its customers to remain home if they are experiencing virus symptoms — a popular sentiment of many bars. 

Other bars, especially ones that have food options, are taking things a step further. The Umbrella Hospitality bar group (Lono, The Corner Door and Melrose Umbrella Co.) is offering curbside pickup of its food items, and Yapa is launching a special food menu for pick-up or delivery via Caviar and DoorDash. Yapa is also cutting back its days and hours of operation. “We want to reduce the risk for our staff and guests while still trying to keep our team employed during this crisis,” says Goldman. 

Bars’ efforts to adapt to this unprecedented situation range from banishing cocktail garnishes to changing the bar layout for social distancing. “I am going forward with no garnishes out in the open and cut to order if someone needs a lemon or lime wedge,” says Cari Hah, bar manager at Big Bar in Los Feliz. Her staff members are also required to wash their hands thoroughly between every round of drinks and every transaction. “It’s really pretty frightening. And to be honest, I don’t even want to leave my house or be out in public, but I have to work,” she says, adding, “I’m bartending with gloves, personally.”

Cari Hah at Big Bar 2018

Jessie Smyth, bar director of Genever cocktail lounge in Historic Filipinotown, says her staff is diligently sanitizing every surface guests touch every time they leave, such as the bar counter, stools, tables, under and around the edges of tables, menus, check presenters, pens, door knobs, and even soap dispensers. They also throw out coasters after single use and provide hand sanitizer at the door.

At Death & Co. in Downtown’s Arts District, the garnish specs for all the drinks are being kept to a minimum, with the bartenders using tweezers to handle them. The bar will also temporarily close its Standing Room area, a smaller lounge toward the front of the establishment. “In terms of social distancing, we are changing how we’re seating people by closing Standing Room as it’s the one area where people congregate tightly together,  and [we are] effectively reducing capacity in the main bar area by distancing seating arrangements,” says David Kaplan, co-owner of Death & Co.

Bibo Ergo Sum in West Hollywood has reduced its capacity from 80 to 50, eliminating physical contact with guests and among staff. “No handshakes. No high fives. No hugs. Instead, we’ll adopt some other form of friendly acknowledgement,” says owner Tait Forman. Even the door person will wear gloves while checking IDs and the staff while building cocktails.

Health experts, such as Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Dr. Anthony Fauci, strongly recommend avoiding going out altogether. The reason is that those infected with COVID-19 show no symptoms for roughly two weeks but can still transmit the virus in the meantime. Several countries have gone even further in closing borders, issuing travel bans and enforcing closures of public venues. 

Meanwhile, the United States proceeds with caution, although South Boston closed bars and restaurants on Sunday and #shutdownNYC was trending on Twitter as New Yorkers were concerned for their safety. LA mayor Eric Garcetti has dissuaded Angelenos from dining at restaurants but has not issued an outright ban. But for those stir-crazy from self-isolating or working from home, the idea of grabbing a drink and socializing at the local bar is an alluring, if discouraged, option.

With the drop in bar-goers and open hours, some bars have had to cut staff and hours. The Airliner in Highland Park reduced its staff to a nightly skeleton crew while Death & Co. is offering financial assistance to its part-time employees. Houston Hospitality (La Descarga, Harvard & Stone) hasn’t laid off bartenders, but it has had to cut hours and redistribute them among its team.

Frank N Hank 2016

Frank and Hank’s Bar in Koreatown announced on Saturday night that it will be closed “for a little while.” Owner Jimmy Han explains, “It wasn’t really feasible to open a small, confined space with little ventilation and overly friendly bar patrons.” He actually left the decision up to his managers and bartenders. “The majority consensus was that it wasn’t safe. Not for them and not for the patrons,” he says. 

But at Tonga Hut in North Hollywood, owner Marie King says, “It seems like our employees are thankful we’re open, albeit a little nervous, just glad they’re not losing 100% of their income.” For the moment, the tiki bar plans to carry on with its St. Patrick’s Day potluck on Tuesday.

“Everyone in the industry is navigating these waters differently and seeking the best pathways forward for their businesses,” says Kaplan. “The one thing we can all agree on is that local businesses need support now more than ever, so if you’re feeling well, support local, buy local, and of course, use your best judgment. If you don’t feel comfortable going out in public, many places are offering to-go services, so take advantage of those. There are lots of ways we can show our continued support and patronage.”

But for Sean Kelly, owner of Highland Park’s The Airliner, says it “feels very awkward to encourage people to come out when it could possibly be harmful to their health. But we’re diligently paying attention to health department updates and will do whatever is necessary to keep everyone safe.”