Stage is set for the new normal in nightlife

Bars, clubs allowed to reopen Monday; many owners say it’s soon

When Georgia restaurants began reopening for sit-down service April 27 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it marked a new era in dining. June 1 signals the new normal in the nightlife scene, as bars and clubs around the state reopen doors and dance floors.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s latest executive order last week cleared the way for larger gatherings, and allows bars and clubs to reopen as long as they comply with a set of 39 mandatory measures.

>> RELATED: Georgia eases more virus restrictions, letting bars and nightclubs reopen

Some owners are cautiously moving forward with plans to reopen and were not impacted by the weekend’s protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd died after a police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck pinning him down for several minutes.

A 9 p.m. curfew had been issued for Saturday and Sunday after Friday's demonstrations turned chaotic leading to looting and property damage in downtown Atlanta and Buckhead. Kemp issued a state of emergency across Georgia allowing National Guard troops to deploy as needed. By Sunday evening he had not reversed or delayed Monday's reopening order.

Still, some bar and nightclub owners say it’s too soon to get the party started.

A modified night scene

Stephen Drenth, director of operations at Burn by Rocky Patel at The Battery Atlanta, said he’s looking forward to reopening the cigar lounge, although that won’t occur Monday.

Burn managers will use June 1-4 to train staff members on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on how to properly disinfect and sanitize areas in the lounge. He anticipates the lounge reopening June 5.

Drenth said that the steady stream of former customers asking when Burn will reopen has him feeling positive about the future.

“There are certainly some unknowns, and we are going to deal with those on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

As of Friday afternoon, Tommy Ashadele was almost certain that he’d reopen his bar June 1. He was still working to rehire staff he’d had to lay off when Vice Bar and Bistro in Suwanee was forced to close in March, but Ashadele’s reopening plan was otherwise solid: Reduced hours, half capacity and a list of adjustments to comply with new state health guidelines.The bar will have a “slow start,” opening five days a week from 7 p.m. to midnight.

The state's 39 reopening guidelines require screening workers for illness, limiting capacity to 25 people or 35% occupancy capacity and adhering to social distancing and sanitation guidelines. Live performance venues must remain closed.

Vice Bar and Bistro is a hookah bar, where patrons share large pipes to vaporize flavored tobacco alongside drinks and small plates. The tubes and mouthpieces on the pipes, which were cleaned between each use in the past, will now be single-use and disposable, Ashadele said. Groups of guests will be limited to four people, and tables will be at least six feet apart. It will accept reservations as before but those are optional.

Every staff member and customer will have their temperature checked with a touchless thermometer. Customers will also be given a squirt of hand sanitizer before they enter the bar, Ashadele said.

“We want our customers to be safe, and we want our employees to work in a safe environment,” he said.

Chaplins restaurant and karaoke bar located off the historic square in Roswell will also reopen Monday with safety measures that include social distancing, paper menus and new microphone covers for each karaoke singer. In addition, the DJ will take participants’ names via text.

Ryan Akly, co-owner of Three Sheets in Sandy Springs, said the nightclub lounge will be open Fridays and Saturdays starting June 12, but its dance floor will remain closed. Akly said that will be the club’s biggest challenge because dancing is part of the experience.

In contrast, the dance floor will once again be part of the experience at Johnny’s Hideaway on Roswell Road. Owner Chris Dauria stated that the dance floor will be cordoned with stanchion rope dividers and that an employee will be stationed at a four-foot opening to enforce a reduced dance capacity. In addition, the dance floor will only be open from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. The popular night club is open seven days a week.

“My biggest concern is crowd control and trying to keep people happy,” Dauria said. He stated that if long lines formed outside the establishment, “I would almost be forced to go to reservation-only just to be fair.”

Reservations will be part of the June 5 reopening plans at Our Bar ATL on Edgewood Avenue. It was open a mere three weeks before owner Sung Hyong was forced to close down and shift to a pop-up takeout model. Besides reservations, it will operate with limited hours – weekends only and closing at midnight. Hyong is also among more than three dozen Old Fourth Ward business owners to sign a pledge to follow an additional 25 guidelines beyond those stipulated in the current executive orders.

‘Whoa! Too soon’

Just as Georgia was among the first states in the nation to allow restaurants to resume dine-in service, it is among the first to permit bars and nightclubs to resume business. But,Mary’s, MJQ, Euclid Avenue Yacht Club, Smith’s Olde Bar, the Righteous Room, the Music Room and the Sound Table will remain closed Monday.

“To protect my employees and my customers as well, I don’t think opening right now is smart,” said Patrick Galvin, owner of The Righteous Room on Ponce De Leon.

He noted that 35% capacity means they can only allow 19 people in at a time.

“Our margins are so tight that you’ll need more than 19 people for our employees to make money,” he said.

Galvin hopes to reopen the bar in July, but said he’s also waiting for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ reopening plan to reach the fourth or fifth phase before he reopens. Bottoms moved to Phase 2 of her five-phase reopening plan last Wednesday.

Besides a reduced capacity that impacts revenue and a hyper vigilance toward crowd control, owners said that ventilation posed an additional challenge for opening during the pandemic.

“This is a huge issue for us because we’re in a basement,” said Keiran Neely, co-owner of the Music Room, a nightclub and live music venue on Edgewood Avenue.

Neely has been gauging interest of supporters on Facebook in the event that he would reopen the Edgewood Speakeasy, the private bar above the Music Room. “We had about two to three people respond. At this point, I don’t see any reason to ramp up our efforts if people are not interested in coming,” he said. In the meantime, he and business partner Mike LaSage will continue with the live streaming Saturday events they launched and that have brought in a few thousand dollars in viewer donations.

“I haven’t gotten the sense that anyone is opening anytime soon,” said Ree de la Vega, a longtime DJ who had regular gigs at MJQ, W Hotels, STK and 8Arm prior to the pandemic. “No one is ready. No one feels comfortable going back to work right now,” she said.

The long term

The Sound Table owner Karl Injex said that reopening plans should consider that if COVID-19 is here to stay for a while, adapting to it means getting creative.

“We want to be open, but do we want people to walk in an environment where they feel alienated? We have to figure out how to play with the parameters to make it enjoyable. To make it less about massive amounts of people sweating together and take advantage of the situation and what it offers,” said Injex.

Because the Sound Table is a bar, restaurant and nightclub, Injex has considered offering themed, possibly ticketed, events such as dinner with a soundtrack that include food, drinks and music. “We’re about the experience,” he said. “The place is the product.”

“It would be a waste for us not to take this opportunity to rebuild the hospitality industry as a whole, especially with income and stability. When 90% of the industry is not able to sustain a two-week furlough, you know you have a problem.”


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