Bar Shiru guests on Telegraph Avenue during the first weekend of the bar's "flex streets" reopening. Credit: Pete Rosos

Bar Shiru, a hi-fi vinyl listening bar on Telegraph in downtown Oakland, had been open barely a year when the pandemic forced its shutdown. It’s been closed since March, able to sell only manufacturer-sealed liquor. But this weekend, owners Shirin Raza and Daniel Gahr participated in the city’s new “flex streets” initiative, four expanded outdoor seating areas with closed streets and sidewalks that let customers sip and eat while social distancing outdoors. 

The initiative is a collaboration between the city, the county, downtown and Uptown community benefit districts, or CBDs, and small business owners. The CBDs provide hand-washing stations and accessible porta-potties at each site, as well as signs reminding folks they’re required to socially distance, wear masks, and wash their hands. Big orange water containers prevent traffic from entering the “flex streets” space, but there is still space for emergency vehicle access. 

The four new flex streets locations are: 

13th Street, between Broadway and Franklin Street (13th Street Commons)
Washington Street, between 8th and 9th streets in Old Oakland
Telegraph Avenue, between 16th and 17th streets (Van Kleef Way)
Webster Street, between West Grand Avenue and 22nd Street

While COVID cases in Alameda County have decreased over time, “widespread” viral transmission continues here, and Oakland continues to have the most new cases. Some might question whether this is the best time to invite more people to spend time in person at venues in Oakland. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control showed a connection between COVID transmission and eating and drinking at restaurants, though the study did not ask whether patients who tested positive for COVID-19 had dined indoors or outdoors.

“People are craving social interaction, and creating a safe space that can bring life back to the community seems like a success for everybody,” says Bar Shiru’s Gahr. While the CBD’s ambassador staff will visit the sites to help with overall cleaning and sanitation, individual businesses are responsible for ensuring that their guests are observing state guidelines for businesses during COVID. During a quick afternoon visit this past weekend, dozens of guests at various restaurants and bars sat at widely spaced tables, keeping masks on while not eating or drinking. Abundant signs reinforced COVID safety rules.

Bar Shiru owners Shirin Raza and Daniel Gahr hope the flex streets initiative will help make up for losses suffered to the COVID pandemic. Credit: Pete Rosos

For now seating is first-come, first-served, but if the concept takes off, some businesses might require reservations. Within the closed streets, businesses are designing their spaces in their own ways. The Athletic Club on Webster and Broadway, for example, has installed artificial turf and a white picket fence. 

Can the Bar Shiru team translate their bar’s intimate, music-focused experience to the outdoors? “We can’t,” says Gahr, “so we’re trying to create a space that feels cozy, and inviting, not just some folding chairs on the street. It’s a challenge to live up to our standards on a shoestring.” They’re also implementing a four-person party maximum and a 90-minute table limit, and plan to be open outdoors Thursday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Masks are required at all times whether or not guests are at their table, and whenever interacting with staff. The bar’s indoor restroom will only be available to one customer at a time. Raza is excited to debut a new set of internationally-themed cocktails for Oakland Cocktail Week. 

Cocktail Week—which actually runs for a month this year, through October 11—is partly a fundraiser for participating Oakland businesses that serve blended drinks. The event started two years ago as a weeklong event, and Daphne Wu, one of the organizers, says transitioning to a month during the pandemic allows more of a “runway” to reach the event’s goals: get people back to their favorite haunts, whether for takeout or outdoor socializing, and raise $75,000 for independently owned bars, particularly those that haven’t been able to open due to the pandemic, and bars whose owners are Black, Indigenous, other people of color, and/or women. 

Fundraising is being handled by Oakland’s Indie Alliance, which supports small businesses, many of whom are restaurants and bars. According to a recent survey by the organization, 47% of small businesses in Oakland could survive for only one to three months without income. “The community has agency to help make a difference,” says Ari Takata-Vasquez, executive director of Indie Alliance. Earlier this summer, the Alliance helped raise over $150,000 for small businesses whose windows were broken during protests. 

Some of the fundraising will happen at happy hour virtual concerts produced by AMP Oakland, held every Friday through October 9. The series will be hosted by local D.J. and producer Champagne Hughes, featuring Lady Bianca, Uriah Duffy and Collectivity, Briget Boyle, and Mr.B & TuBeNu Cultural Gatherers. The events will culminate on October 10 with the Town Throwdown Championship, when locals will get to vote on their favorite tavern’s take-out cocktails.

“We need any opportunity to do something different, to grab people’s attention,” says Wu, who shared data from another partner, Visit Oakland, showing that some credit card sales to Oakland restaurants during the second quarter of 2020 were down 82% compared to last year.

“Collectively, we have a lot of power, we’re scrappy, and we’re not going down without a fight,” Wu said.  “And I really think we’ll be stronger when we come out on the other side of this.”

Editor’s note: This post was updated to clarify that a recent study from the C.D.C., which found that “adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results,” did not ask patients whether they dined indoors or outdoors.

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.