When the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold, the CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE signs appeared on the doors of Twin Cities bars seemingly overnight. The emerging pandemic shut down every bar and restaurant in the city right on St. Patrick’s Day, saving lives and preventing a further spread of cases. At the time, most bar owners were cautiously optimistic that they could survive the indefinite closure, and many even took the opportunity to remodel or rehab.
It’s been a long summer for Twin Cities taverns. When they opened again in June, bartenders faced a new reality, with masks and distancing guidelines transforming a business based on social interaction and crowds. But there were two saving graces: federal support for small businesses and the summer patio season. Now, with winter fast approaching and nothing but crickets from Congress, the coming season might be the worst for local pubs since prohibition a century ago.
“We’re at limited capacity, but it was nice that the city allowed us a slam dunk, getting the outdoor space able to use for the summer,” said Meredith O’Toole, the owner of The Spot, St. Paul’s longest-running bar. “It’s kind of hit or miss. It’s definitely not what it was, probably a third of the business.”
The Spot Bar has been serving drinks since 1885 on Randolph and Victoria in the West End neighborhood, and O’Toole and her family have been running it for decades. This summer was the first time they’ve had a “patio.” It’s little more than some plastic furniture in the grassy lot next door, roped off with a few flags. Small as it is, the Spot patio provides outdoor seating for the COVID cautious to relax and socialize, for many the only way to leave the house and see people during quarantine.
“You know how small we are,” said O’Toole, describing the intimate wood saloon. “My concern is that the weather starts to change. Will we have to close back up again if the cases go up? Will there be something to help the employees out, if it’s another case like the spring?”
I had asked her about what if any government help she might want for the business. During the closure in the spring, the Spot Bar staff counted on the extra unemployment insurance help from the CARES Act to make the biggest difference, while other programs helped around the margins.
“We did take advantage of the city,” she explained. “We had a grant we were able to get, and also the Small Business Association had a federal program of emergency aid, $1,000 per employee.”
As with many of the state’s small businesses, the larger PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan program proved to be too inflexible to help The Spot, which “opted not to take it at the time.” Instead, it’s been staying afloat thanks to the support of its long-time regulars.
It doesn’t hurt that O’Toole owns the property, and after installing plexiglass between the booths and moving some bar stools, has been hanging in there. At the same time, like a lot of neighborhood bars, The Spot has staff who are getting up there in years. Some of the longest-serving bartenders have not returned because of health concerns.
Over in Minneapolis’ famous West Bank, Palmer’s Bar re-opened its doors on July 31 after a rehab, including a welcome remodeling of both 19th-century bathrooms. Even with a big patio, it’s been struggling to get customers back into the 114-year-old bar.
“We opened to beautiful weather, have a nice, big expanded patio, and remodeled the bathrooms,” explained the owner, Tony Zaccardi. “’All right, here we go, it’s beautiful, come on in.’ And it just didn’t happen. It’s 70 degrees out and it’s Friday and there are four people here on the patio. And I had to remember — oh, we’re in a pandemic.”
Palmer’s is better off than most of the city’s old haunts. It has a large patio with a fire pit that sprawls out beneath the concrete abutment of the next-door housing complex. There’s space for people to spread out, but for a bar famous for its music scene, the spirit hasn’t been the same during the deadly pandemic. It puts people like Zaccardi into a Catch-22, caught between taking the pandemic seriously and making payroll.
“We can put on a happy face, but it’s disheartening,” admitted Zaccardi. “You go to a suburban bar and they’re jam packed, and you come here and it’s five people distanced or whatever. We want people to support us the best they can, and if they are comfortable going out to the places that are open, we care about trying to make sure people are comfortable and safe.”
The federal CARES money did help Palmer’s get through the summer, plus an impromptu fundraising effort that saw artists and other Palmer’s devotees raise funds for laid-off staff. (One marquee item: a Palmer’s coloring book, put together by local R&B legend Har Mar Superstar.) But in the bar business, the profits come from crowds, and that makes running a profitable bar during COVID an oxymoron, all least if you care about public health.
Zaccardi is still trying out new ideas, brainstorming ways to help bring people to hang out.
“Fire barrels and that kind of thing,” he said, when I asked him about fall patio tweaks. “We have a fire pit year round, and people love it. But firewood is equally expensive as anything else.”
Zaccardi added: “One thing I can say with good confidence: Palmer’s will come out on either end of this. We’re not in dire straits as of yet. We survived the first pandemic in 1918, and we’ll do it again.”
The Black Hart
Before the pandemic, University Avenue’s Black Hart bar would fill to capacity for every home game of Minnesota United soccer or for the weekly drag show. The Black Hart (formerly the Town House) is St. Paul’s oldest GLBT bar and, after Wes Burdine bought the place in 2018, has served dual duty as a headquarters for the Twin Cities soccer scene.
That was before the pandemic. These days, all the events are gone and on any given day you might find a dozen people watching a European soccer match or regulars shooting pool through the evening in masks. It’s mostly a low-key affair, though Burdine organized a curbside drag effort earlier in the summer, where drag queens delivered to-go food to folks in the parking lot.
“It’s very tough for me when my job is to put on events and find ways to get people into the bar,” said Burdine, who opens the place each week to screen early morning soccer. “My job essentially doesn’t exist. We’re not promoting anything. We don’t have any events. We just have a place for people come to drink, so I’ll just focus on getting the place clean and doing the books. But there’s not much else for me to do.”
Inside the Black Hart these days, the barstools are spread out and tables distributed across the wood dance floor. Without a patio, it’s a bit lonely, though supporters of various English Premiere League teams or long-time Midway regulars often remain around the TVs. Like much of the event-based economy, the bar and industry are facing a pandemic paradox: Without federal support, they can’t responsibly make any money.
“It’s almost a relief that we haven’t been that busy, because anytime I have seen someone here, I want them to feel comfortable,” explained Burdine. “It’s way easier to do that if there’s 10 people here rather than if we were one of those bars that had a line out the door.”
Like Zaccardi, Burdine used the federal CARES support earlier this summer to offset labor costs and keep people paid. Now that the money has dried up, he’s frustrated by the hypocrisy of the split Congress.
“The one golden rule of American politics is that small business owners are precious,” he said. “You get the element that at least [Congress] will do something basic to help. We ran through CARES money a while ago. It basically dried up by the end the summer. So now we’ve got what we can bring in, and I don’t know how anyone is expected to get by on 20% of their revenue for an entire year.”
One thing that Burdine said would help: more sales of beer and wine to go. Since the Minnesota Legislature tweaked state law to allow bars to do off-sale … especially since arsonists burned down two liquor stores in the Midway, Black Hart and other neighborhood bars are one of the few places to buy beer in the whole neighborhood.
Still, it’s going to be a long winter. As Palmer’s Tony Zaccardi admitted, “With any bar now it’s worrying all about what’s coming in the next couple of months.”
The real solution for businesses like the Twin Cites’ historic bars and restaurants would be another round of federal support, offsetting payrolls and providing loans or grants. But with the election undermining a desire to compromise, there are only slim hopes for a relief package that might make a difference on the ground in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“People should definitely be talking to their congressional reps and telling them to support the Save our Stages act, as well as restaurant industry legislation out there,” said Wes Burdine. “These days it feels like a quixotic effort but I don’t know … I hold out hope that somehow these people will get their act together and not let the economy completely tank.”