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“We’re a volume business,” said Billy Joe Agan, the co-owner of Eli’s Mile High Club, an Oakland dive bar that since the 1970s has been known for packed blues, punk and rock shows with patrons who each down “four or five drinks” on an average night. Everything about that model, from the crowds, to the music that drowns out all but the loudest conversations, to the repeat trips to the well, has been impossible since the pandemic began.
But even though this week, Alameda County’s COVID-19 rates are expected to be low enough to allow it to enter the orange tier of California’s color-coded reopening map — a tier that would allow Eli’s and other bars to move a step closer to the type of nightlife we all had prior to the pandemic — Agan said that his spot isn’t “going to make any big changes right away.” The same is true for the owners of three other bars that Nosh spoke with this week, as all said that the relaxing effects of alcohol could prompt their patrons to let down their guard and risk another wave of infections.
Daniel Cukierman is the co-owner of cozy Lake Merritt-adjacent cafe and bar Room 389 and taproom and restaurant Mad Oak. Cukierman’s venues have remained open throughout the pandemic, changing their model to to-go businesses that (per California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control rules announced this time last year) allow takeout cocktails and other alcoholic beverages if orders are accompanied by a “bona fide meal.”
This was an easier task for Mad Oak, which has a full kitchen, Cukierman said. His plan has always been to offer Mad Oak to guest chefs on a six-month rotating basis, and with the coronavirus crisis in full swing, The Lumpia Company has been fulfilling that need. As Mad Oak “has a 4,000-square-foot patio,” Cukierman said, once outdoor dining resumed in the region, “we’ve been doing a good enough dinner business to pay the bills and keep a skeleton staff employed.”
Bars that serve food operate under the same restrictions as restaurants; in Alameda County, they have been allowed to serve patrons outdoors since Jan. 25, 2021, and were allowed to reopen indoors at limited capacity on March 10. Bars without food are allowed to open for outdoor service when a county enters the orange tier of reopening, which is expected for Alameda County on March 31.
Room 389, on the other hand, is kitchenless, which means that it’s kept afloat by selling prepared foods during the day, as a coffee shop-style cafe. Then, when the bar opens at 3 p.m., those grab-and-go meals can be offered with alcohol, all passed through the venue’s to-go window. Though it lacks Mad Oak’s patio, its Grand Avenue location has served it well, with customers picking up food and drinks then heading to the lake, which “has become a mecca for people who need to get out of the house, and want a place to gather safely,” Cukierman said. “Being by the lake has probably saved us.”
In the eyes of state officials, bars that serve food, like Eli’s, Room 389 and Mad Oak, are allowed the same reopening privileges as restaurants. That means that since March 9, when Alameda County moved into the red reopening tier, those spots could have started serving patrons indoors, at 25% capacity or a maximum of 100 people. That capacity increases to 50% and 200 people in the orange tier, but for now, said Agan and Cukierman, their indoor operations will remain dark. (Bars without any food service can operate outdoors only, under orange tier restrictions.)
Both publicans said a combination of factors went into the decision to reopen more conservatively than state health orders allow. For Cukierman, Mad Oak’s patio makes a slow reopening easier. The same is true at Eli’s, which has a massive outdoor space. Though its interior is large, over half of that space is where the business hosted shows, which means it’s not usable until live entertainment returns. That’s why, Agan says, he’s not rushing to resume indoor drinking and dining as “there’s no reason to reopen that when we won’t have any acts for a really long time.”
Both said that before they allow patrons indoors, they want to make sure that all their employees are fully vaccinated. “I’m not going to put any of my people at risk,” Cukierman said. “I’m not going to make anyone have to choose to endanger themselves just to make money,” Agan echoed. Both said that it’ll be several more weeks before everyone in their employ is fully vaccinated. “After that, we’ll see,” Cukierman said, “but we’re not going to rush back into anything.”
While speaking with Nosh, both Agan and Cukierman said, more than once, that the combination of alcohol’s loosening effects combined with a year stuck at home could make for a dangerous combination indoors.
This isn’t a fear they came up with on their own: On March 15, 2020, two days before Bay Area restaurants saw their first shutdown, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all breweries, wineries and bars should completely cease operations, citing those spots’ proclivities for lower inhibitions and extended-contact gatherings. By June 2020, California’s Department of Public Health spelled out its specific concerns around alcohol-focused venues, saying then that “alcohol consumption slows brain activity, reduces inhibition, and impairs judgment, factors which contribute to reduced compliance with recommended core personal protective measures, such as the mandatory use of face coverings and maintaining six feet of distance from people outside of one’s own household.”
The CA DPH’s concerns are shared by Agan and Cukierman. “In my experience serving people alcohol,” Cukierman said, “people get loose and we end up being babysitters.” Add to that the need to enforce social distancing, mask wear and other health orders, and the task is difficult even in the best of times. “But now, people who are going out really want to be out,” said Agan, citing the year-long lockdown. “There’s no way to control a crowd of people once they decide what they want to do,” he said, so keeping capacity down — and patrons outside, in the freely circulating air — seems like a less risky proposition.
Fears over how people would hold their liquor during these stressful times helped Ali Eslami decide to keep his Berkeley bar, The Missouri Lounge, closed throughout the pandemic. “I’m extremely cautious with people and alcohol,” Eslami said, “and the last thing you can do is tell people to keep their distance when they’ve had a couple drinks.” While he’s “happy for everyone” that the county is moving into the orange tier,” he said that “we are not there yet, and I don’t think we’ll be out of the woods for the next couple months.”
According to KQED, the Missouri first opened in the mid-1950s, and has operated relatively continually since. The bar’s longevity means that it had “a lot of deferred maintenance,” Eslami said, including a deteriorating pipe that runs beneath the well-polished bar, itself. The spot’s need for upgrades had weighed on Eslami‘s mind for years, but as he knew that the work would require a full-closure of the bar, “we kept putting it off.” And even when Newsom ordered bars to shutter completely, Eslami didn’t think he’d have the time to make the fix.
“Probably like everyone else,” Eslami said, “I thought this would just be for a few weeks, so we had our last shot of drinks and closed early on that Sunday … it took us a couple months to realize it would be a longer time before life would be normal again.” That’s when he started filing for permits to perform that maintenance work, which “requires a lot of careful digging.” Work began a few months ago, and is expected to continue until the summer, at least. That means that by the time the Missouri is ready to reopen, the pandemic might be at the tail end.
“I hope so,” Eslami laughed, when that’s suggested to him. “We’re lucky that we own the building, because that way we didn’t have to find a way to stay open to pay the rent.” By the time the drainage work is done, Eslami said, he hopes that “everybody has been vaccinated, so we’re in a good place to be.”
Eslami’s biggest worry these days is “maintaining the feel of the old place” as he tears out damaged or decaying pieces of the seven-decade-plus space. “How can we do that and also make sure we do nothing that takes away the feel of the old place? It’s a balancing act,” Eslami said.
While Eslami works to make sure the Missouri feels the same when people come back, Cukierman is less willing to look into the future.
“I stopped thinking about that this time last year,” he said, when asked when he expects his business to return to what we once thought of as normal. “People are creatures of habits and they’ve started new habits,” he said. But he’s “hoping by the winter” that things at Room 389 and Mad Oak will look more like they did before March 2020.
At Eli’s, the outlook is a little different. According to Agan, 50% of the spot’s revenue was driven by live acts, between costs at the door and food and drinks sold during a show. During 2020’s roller-coaster of closing, reopening and reclosing, Eli’s operated as a takeout-only business, then (when restrictions first eased last summer) offered outdoor dining and drinking. That ride ended with the last spike of COVID-19 cases in late December, and the business has since paused its takeout and delivery operations, as well.
But that doesn’t mean that Eli’s has been completely dark: Using the crowdfunding site Patreon, Eli’s has hosted members-only online concerts and interviews from its stage every week. “The Patreon has actually been doing pretty well for us,” Agan said, and he expects to keep that part of the business going even as restrictions ease. What he won’t do is host live shows with an audience present.
“First, I’m not going to book an act if we have reduced capacity,” Agan said, as to fulfill live music profit margins “we need a packed house … when 75% capacity comes around, maybe?” Though health orders would allow live music in Eli’s outdoor space, that’s not in the cards, either. “We have a tenuous enough relationship with our neighbors as-is,” Agan said. “I’m not going to antagonize by having some grindcore band play outside.”
But even then, how does a bar host a show and keep patrons distanced and safe, as COVID-19 seems tailor-made for transmission at a shoulder-to-shoulder general admission venue? Agan sighed at the thought. “That’s how a lot of rational people are thinking — that’s how I’m thinking! And if we’re both thinking that way, I have to assume that a lot of people are going to stay at home instead of going out to a club for a while.”
Cukierman said he’s seeing a similar trend, of fewer folks “going out to meet people” or “coming out in big groups.” Instead, he said, “we’re getting so many dates. We’ve never had this many couples before.”
But eventually, Agan, Cukierman and Eslami expect business to bounce back — and things might even be better than before. Eslami’s already looking forward to welcoming patrons back to a “new and improved but still the classic” Missouri, and Cukierman said that he expects his patios to be full “when the weather is great and everyone who wants to has been vaccinated, probably mid-summer.”
Agan has less of a timeline in mind, but he’s still in a positive place. “I’m bullish on bars and small venues,” he said. “Since 1913, we haven’t had a time in American hospitality where people haven’t been able to gather.” So, when they know that gathering at a bar is once again a safe thing to do, “They are going to be clubbing it up like the Prohibition just ended.”