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Bars Struggle After Being Forced To Close Again During Pandemic


It's not an easy time to be in the bar business. That's especially true in states that allowed them to reopen but are now closing again as the coronavirus case numbers rise. NPR's Kirk Siegler talked to people in the industry who are trying to find a way to make it work without increasing the infection rate.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A year ago, Sam Eaton started bartending at a craft cocktail bar in Boise, Idaho, called Press and Pony. They gave him insurance, retirement benefits. And then the bottom fell out. Press and Pony was forced to shut in March.

SAM EATON: So I was one of those guys that instead of choosing to get laid off and go unemployment, I actually went and got three jobs.

SIEGLER: Eaton was working 70-hour weeks to try to make the same amount of money as he did bartending. So when Idaho allowed bars to reopen May 30, he was eager to get back to Press and Pony.

EATON: It's been a journey.

SIEGLER: Then barely two weeks later, Press and Pony was forced to close again as Idaho's largest county, Ada, reported its biggest coronavirus increase of the pandemic. Erik Schweitzer is Eaton's boss and Press and Pony's general manager.

ERIK SCHWEITZER: That was depressing. I mean, I understand why we had to do it. I mean...

SIEGLER: They thought they were right back where they were in March, to-go cocktails only. But then Schweitzer realized the way the order is written, it's still perfectly legal to serve drinks in a restaurant. And it turns out Press and Pony's sister establishment downstairs - a ramen house - is a restaurant. So they schlepped over some liquor bottles, mixers and shakers.


SCHWEITZER: We're pretty much doing a pop-up bar.

SIEGLER: The limited menu includes an Old Fashioned that he's about to pour into a highball.


SIEGLER: Business is OK, not great.

SCHWEITZER: It's really tough to plan a schedule or plan a future of what you're trying to do when it's so - any day, it could change.

SIEGLER: He's spaced out the tables. The bar stools are roped off. There's hand sanitizer everywhere.

SCHWEITZER: And just 'cause even we are still open, like, I'm still scared, too, about what can happen if we go back another phase or what's going to happen next week.

SIEGLER: Elsewhere in Boise and in states like Arizona and Texas where reopenings have been rolled back, bar owners say they're being unfairly targeted. Restaurants that also happen to have bars in them can stay open. Texas Governor Greg Abbott is getting sued over that.

Walk just a couple blocks over to Boise's typical hub of nightlife, 8th Street, and the rules feel a little ambiguous. One block is now pedestrian-only. Sidewalk patios are expanded. And the crowds look pretty pre-pandemic here.

ASHLEY FAIRBANKS: I feel like it's kind of unfair, honestly, 'cause they're taking precautions as well.

SIEGLER: Ashley Fairbanks (ph) is sipping wine with a salad. Her friend Isaac Nordby (ph) chimes in as cocktails are getting mixed behind him at an open-air bar. They gave their phone numbers for contact tracing and had to wear masks.

ISAAC NORDBY: I put my mask on to walk to my table, but then I'm talking to my server without my mask on. It feels like we're just playing - we're going through some motions. We're not really - some of these things are, I'm sure, scientifically based, no doubt. But some of them feel like we're just going through an act.

SIEGLER: Neither say they're very worried about getting sick. If you don't feel safe out here, stay home, they say. Infection risk is constantly weighing on Eric Schweitzer's mind back at his pop-up bar. He's grateful to stay open, but he's also worried about his staff or customers potentially getting the virus. How do you socially distance in a bar?

SCHWEITZER: I mean, it just takes going back one more phase, and then we're closed - all restaurants and everything are closed. So we're just trying to do our part to stay open and stay clean and sanitize and hope that everyone else is kind of doing it, too, 'cause I'd like to get back to phase four. I want to see my friends employed.

SIEGLER: Bartenders are used to being the enforcers, Schmidt (ph) says. They're not afraid to kick people out for standing too close to each other or being disrespectful of the virus restrictions.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MEN SONG, "PRESENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.