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Bars back in business but not all are planning to take the leap to reopen

The Air Conditioned Lounge in the Normal Heights area is reopening on Friday after being closed for almost three months.
(The Air Conditioned Lounge)

While all bars are now allowed to be back in business, a number of them already have done so under rules that permitted them to reopen, along with dine-in restaurant,s as long as they served food

For the last three months, the Air Conditioned Lounge has been closed, its lively dance club silenced, but that doesn’t mean the North Park venue hasn’t been preparing for its reopening Friday, when bars finally get to resume business.

“The bar has been maintained the whole time because we got federal PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money so I continued to pay the staff and they’d come and clean the place,” said owner Gary John Collins, whose bar doesn’t sell food, unlike many San Diego County bars that got to open more than two weeks ago when restaurants were allowed to resume dine. “So it’s not a big leap for us other than moving furniture to make sure things are 6 feet apart.”

But don’t expect people clustering around the bar five feet deep, ordering draft beer and cocktails. In the interest of social distancing requirements imposed by state and county public health officials, Collins said he won’t be letting people stand or sit at the bar. Instead, there will be room elsewhere inside the Lounge and in its outdoor space, the Glamisphere, for plenty of socializing and drinking at a safe distance from one another — just not enough, though, to make a profit, he acknowledges.

“Chances are pretty slim we can be profitable,” says Collins, whose bar will only be able to accommodate about 25 percent of its normal capacity of 200. “Our business thrives on celebrations involving a lot of people ordering a lot of alcohol, dancing, hugging. You won’t have that fervor to stay longer. It’s going to be break-even at best.”

Like restaurants, bars are under the same health and safety rules governing social distancing,

As eager as bar owners are to get back to business and reconnect with their customers, some say it’s too soon and too risky in an environment that is normally accustomed to close quarters. Also, many nightlife venues rely on musical entertainment, which isn’t yet permitted because it’s viewed as encouraging large gatherings.

“I want to go back to work but don’t want to risk my life and what I might bring home to my family so this whole unknown is frightening,” said Robin Chiki, co-owner of the 13-year-old Bar Pink in North Park. " And we can’t have live music. Currently, we’re losing money not being opened and we do to-go sale on the weekends for cocktail kits and merchandise, but to have to police social distancing and being at a quarter occupancy, we’d lose more money being open than we are just being closed. So we think it’s best for us to see how things go.”

Similarly, longtime nightlife entrepreneur Ty Hauter is holding off on opening up his two sprawling country-rock dance venues, Moonshine Beach in Pacific Beach and Moonshine Flats in East Village. Because they’re heavily entertainment-oriented, it wouldn’t be financially prudent for them to open now, he said.

“Those venues are heavy with entertainment so if you can’t do the entertainment side, you’re firing up a big production, like a DJ or bands or MC for our games and lighting and sound engineers,” Hauter said. “There’s a lot of cost to that and those people are on unemployment right now. If we can’t present close to the whole package, it doesn’t make sense to fire it up. We would lose more money than we’d make.”

Apparently not so for Rachel Dymond, owner of the Carriage House in Kearny Mesa, who was so eager to get back to work that the bar reopened its doors promptly at 10 a.m. Friday.

“We’ve been closed down for three months,” Dymond said, “It’s been a hardship. We have no rent relief, no nothing. So we figured if we can open up and do a little business, then that’s what we need to do.”

The bar, which Dymond and partner Andrew Haines have operated for 13 years, shut down March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, the bar’s busiest day of the year. Karaoke is popular at the Carriage House but under the new rules, it is not allowed.

“We’re hoping they let us increase capacity pretty soon,” said Dymond, who made a conservative estimate that the bar would generate about 30 percent of the business it had before the pandemic hit. “Once that starts and people are a little more comfortable, I think we’ll start booming again.”

The Carriage House has brought back all five of its part-time employees for this weekend’s re-opening.

But county health officials have said they will monitor 13 triggers that could lead to amending orders about business restrictions if a second wave of the outbreak should occur.

“I’m worried about it, that’s what I keep hearing about,” Dymond said. “But I’m optimistic. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about another wave.”

In Coronado, The Little Club, the aptly named bar jammed amid restaurants along the town’s busy Orange Avenue, is holding off reopening until Wednesday so staff can review the new ground rules.

“Opening back up on Friday is kind of asking for trouble because it’s the busiest night of the week,” said general manager Ernie Valdez. Employees will go through a couple of dry runs since the tourist season is picking up. “I just didn’t want my staff to get overwhelmed and I want us to be able to manage the crowd coming in.”

Valdez said the club will set alarms every two hours for bartenders to stop and wipe down high-touch areas around the bar — including the club’s popular jukebox — to ensure cleanliness.

“I get it. it’s a safety issue,” Valdez said of the county’s restrictions. “I’ve got family, I’ve got staff. We still don’t know quite where we’re at with all of this. A lot of people are not afraid (of the virus) anymore and lot of folks still are afraid. The bottom line is there are a lot legalities we have to look out for and try to keep people safe.”

A family-owned business that has been a Coronado staple for more than 60 years, The Little Club closed its doors March 15 and subsequently furloughed seven employees. All have been called back, as Valdez estimates about 75-80 percent of its business will return.

“I hope this isn’t going to be the new norm because you’re cutting down on the number of patrons you can have,” Valdez said. “And you’re adding to your expenses because we now need two or three people on all the time versus during the week when we had just one bartender.”


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