The North Light cocktail bar has closed temporarily because of surging COVID cases. Credit: The North Light

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Following a Dec. 19 “Drag Brunch” at North Light, a cocktail bar in Temescal, Den Stephens, the bar’s general manager, got some concerning news. Someone who attended the party tested positive for COVID-19. Others might have been exposed.

Stephens began contacting people who attended the event and posting the news on social media

“It was encouraging the way in which people responded,” said Stephens. “Folks were really grateful for the clear communication. They were grateful for the transparency. They were grateful because it gave them the information and the opportunity to get themselves tested.”

North Light briefly closed around Christmas and reopened for New Year’s Eve. “In my decade-plus in restaurants and bars, it was the slowest New Year’s Eve that I’ve ever seen or worked,” said Stevens. 

Ultimately, Stephens made the decision to close the bar temporarily, given how rapidly the omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading through the Bay Area.

“It just feels like a wildfire right now,” said Stephens.

According to the CDC COVID Data Tracker, Alameda County is currently experiencing a “high” level of community transmission. San Francisco has the third-highest COVID transmission rate in California, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Stephens is worried about staff getting paid and the inability to find rapid tests and PCR testing sites with ample availability. The North Light has a Venmo account for patrons who want to help the staff during the temporary closure (@North-Light). 

“In order for us to know that our staff are healthy and safe, in order for our patrons to know that they’re healthy and safe, we have to be able to have better access to testing and testing results,” he said. “So that was one of the main reasons why we’ve decided to put things on pause.” 

Many other local bars and restaurants, and even big events, are voluntarily shutting down to protect staff and patrons. On December 27, Oakland First Fridays organizers announced the street fair—which had resumed in October after an 18-month hiatus—wouldn’t happen this month. Like North Light, First Fridays organizers also cited the increase in cases as the reason for the cancellation.

Also in late December, The New Parkway, which had reopened to the public in September, announced its temporary closure.  

“We feel so very fortunate that we’ve not had any known cases of COVID transmission at the theater over the last two years, but with omicron coming to town, we’re not so confident that we can keep this track record so pristine,” the theater’s Facebook announcement read. For now, the New Parkway is relying on its food crates meal delivery service to keep staff partially employed during the closure. The theater is also offering Saturday and Sunday takeout from noon to 6 p.m.

Also in late December, Elbo Room in the Jack London District (which had closed for the holidays), announced that it would remain closed until Jan. 6. West Oakland’s StoreFront Records team also announced that its monthly outdoor market is postponed until the spring.

Many other entertainment venue owners and event organizers are expected to announce temporary shutdowns in the coming days. And even if the omicron surge passes quickly and places begin reopening in February, Oakland residents will still need to show proof they are vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering restaurants, bars, and other establishments. The vaccination requirement takes effect starting Feb. 1.

The idea of requiring people to show proof of vaccination to enjoy a night out is something lots of venue owners embraced long ago. North Light is part of a group of about 15 owners and operators of bars and restaurants that began requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in the summer of 2021. 

“I’m honestly a little surprised that it took the East Bay this long to follow the lead of what is happening in San Francisco,” Stephens said. 

Correction: we have corrected Den Stephens’s last name. We regret the error.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.