When San Francisco native Etanisia and her friends want to have a memorable night out, they tend to start at Apt. C, a lounge bar and restaurant at 89th Avenue and International Boulevard. “We always come out here to celebrate,” she said.

They had plenty to celebrate on Tuesday night, with California officially lifting most COVID restrictions, including a loosening of mask mandates, social distancing requirements, and capacity limits for indoor businesses. 

Many Oakland residents responded by heading out to bars throughout the city to enjoy a drink and their first maskless night out in well over a year. 

The Oaklandside ventured out also, and over the course of the evening visited six different establishments in deep East Oakland, San Antonio, Laurel, North Oakland, and downtown, where we spoke with bartenders and patrons who were experiencing the moment. 

6:30 p.m., Apt. C Bar Lounge, 8916 International Blvd.

Inside Apt. C, a longstanding bar in deep East Oakland. Ricky Rodas

Longtime regulars of this neighborhood staple, which has been around for decades, were happy to be back inside their old stomping grounds. Rusty red-colored wall panels and red overhead lighting set a casual mood as bartender Sharie G. poured cocktails for faces she hadn’t seen since March of last year. 

Patrons sipped on their drinks while “Juicy” by The Notorious B.I.G blared through the ceiling speakers. One customer who walked in right as the song began, sang out the opening line: It was all a dream!

Tuesday was the first day Apt. C had been open since COVID restrictions were first announced nearly a year and a half ago. “This little dive bar is still here and it’s amazing,” Sharie G. said, “and it’s because of the support of the customers.” 

Earl McLoud, the bar manager, said Apt. C was able to reopen after such a long hiatus in part because they own the property. “It’s a blessing because this place has been around for years,” McLoud said. 

The bar’s employees frequently hosted toy drives and community meals for locals during the pandemic, said McLoud, something they hope to continue doing now that they’ve reopened. “When this place is closed, a good portion of the community is closed,” said McLoud.

Back at the bar, Etanisia said she felt safe being out because she’s vaccinated, although she’d still stocked her purse with a couple of masks and a face shield, just in case. 

But overall the mood was joyful, as friends and neighbors reconnected. “And it’s Taco Tuesday,” said Etanisia, referring to the tacos prepared by Apt. C staff. “We’re back to being people.”

7:15 p.m., Laurel Lounge, 3932 MacArthur Blvd.

The sign outside Laurel Lounge, a bar in the Laurel district in East Oakland.
The sign outside Laurel Lounge, a bar in the Laurel district in East Oakland.

Karley, the bartender, had her hands full catering to a completely packed bar. She said the Laurel Lounge has been operating at 25% capacity since bars were first allowed to do so, and had been using a makeshift outdoor patio area until they could welcome patrons back inside, so she was already used to the crowds. “I was so ready for [a full reopening],” said Karley. “I’ve been ready.”

Older gentlemen played pool in the corner while other patrons lounged in their best evening t-shirts, suits, and dresses. Monick Freeman, a Laurel Lounge regular who was seated at the bar wearing a gray dress and wide-frame sunglasses, said Tuesday didn’t even qualify as a busy night. “I come out all the time and today is dead as hell,” Freeman said, adding that the patio area attracts more customers than the inside seating. 

Still, said Freeman, “today felt like it was extra important,” and the rise of vaccinations makes her confident that Oakland nightlife can return to normal. “We’re all a family, we’re a community here.”

7:50 p.m., Victor’s, 551 E 12th St. 

Only a handful of people could be found at Victor’s, a quaint bar in East Lake. The walls were lined with signs advertising Modelo and Pacifico beer, along with a Mexican national soccer team jersey and a Guadalajara “Chivas” jersey. Bittersweet ranchera music played while two men shot pool in the back and the bartender, Sonia Rivas, handed beers to men who had just finished a day of work. 

For Rivas, reopening day began like any other in her six years working at the bar. “I didn’t even think about it,” Rivas said in Spanish. Everyone at the bar on Tuesday night was maskless, but Rivas said that on especially crowded nights, customers would be asked to put on masks. 

Although Rivas did say that the state lifting of COVID restrictions constituted “a special day,” she didn’t expect it to be a particularly eventful night at the bar. “Tell people we’re open and they should come,” Rivas said, as she focused on preparing her signature micheladas.

8:30 p.m., The Avenue, 4822 Telegraph Ave.

Erica Nichols, a longtime bartender at The Avenue, quickly dashes over to a customer to give them their drink. Credit: Brett Marsh

The scene at The Avenue in Temescal was eclectic—bikers, rockers, and hip twentysomethings commingled at the bar underneath a cave-like ceiling, complete with faux stalactites. Longtime bartender Erica Nichols, who’s worked for 12 of the bar’s roughly 15 years of existence, said she saw a lot of 21- and 22-year-olds coming to The Avenue for their first “real” night out on Tuesday. “They feel like they got robbed last year, so they’re making up for it,” Nichols said. 

Seeing new faces as well as regulars come back was incredible, said Nichols. “At first I was nervous, but it’s so good to see old faces,” she said. “It’s going to be one of those summers that goes down in history.” 

As Nichols raced up and down the bar to serve drinks to a continuous stream of customers, Bill Tunstall was sitting on a barstool enjoying a cold beer. “I’m celebrating because we can talk to each other in person again,” Tunstall said. “We can be more friendly and more open with each other.” 

“People are still scared,” added Tunstall, “but I like being able to talk to people without a mask on.” 

10:40 p.m., White Horse Inn, 6551 Telegraph Ave.

A long line of patrons wait to buy drinks at White Horse Inn, a historic gay bar in North Oakland. Ricky Rodas

Believed to be the nation’s oldest-running gay bar, the White Horse Inn was in full effect on reopening day, as a mix of undergraduate students and regulars flooded the historic establishment for karaoke night. One sole bartender did their best to pour drinks for an ever-replenishing line of customers.

Anne Parsons, a visiting student from Australia, said she was still a little concerned about being in a maskless crowd of more than 60 people, but felt confident enough to go out. “It’s pretty disconcerting to be in a group of people without masks,” she said, “but given my understanding of how COVID is spread and how vaccines work, I feel pretty safe.”

Parsons was excited to hang out with her friends on a night she considered to be momentous, but Brandon Camarillo wasn’t sold on the idea that reopening was special. “I just wanted to get a drink after work,” Camarillo said, still masked. “This isn’t an iconic moment.”  

11:30 p.m., The Port Bar, 2023 Broadway

Inside The Port Bar, a well known LGBTQ bar in downtown Oakland. Ricky Rodas

As the night drew to a close, The Port Bar downtown was still packed with customers wanting one last drink. Bartender Dino Moreno said the staff had been serving customers “nonstop” on Tuesday, though he said the bar’s outside patio was busy throughout the pandemic.

Arnoldo Ruiz, who lives nearby, said he went out that night to celebrate reopening and to support one of his favorite queer bars in the area. “It feels great that I am fully vaccinated, and that I don’t have to wear a mask,” Ruiz said. He said life felt “relatively close to how it was before.” 

At 11:50 p.m, Dino and his fellow bartenders were getting ready to close up, but not before serving a couple bar-goers one last round of shots. One of the last songs of the night to blare out of the bar’s speakers was “Juice” by Lizzo, and attendees finished their drinks as the artist sang the chorus: It ain’t my fault that I’m out here making news; I’m the pudding in the proof; gotta blame it on my juice. 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.