How bar owners envision the future of nightlife after coronavirus

From Texas to New York, bar owners explain how they plan to adjust.

May 15, 2020, 6:01 AM

Nightlife looks completely different these days.

Bar patrons have taken things into their own hands -- shaking up cocktails at home, ordering booze from an app, turning up Bluetooth speakers to listen to a virtual DJ on Instagram live, maybe even while Zooming with friends.

But can that ever fully replace elbowing up to a crowded bar, chatting up a bartender and everything else that comes with a night out?

PHOTO: A crowded bar.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with new social distancing requirements and ever-changing, state-by-state safety restrictions, many owners of bars and clubs are waiting with bated breath.

The coveted counter space and tables at Dante -- a famously packed, award-winning cocktail bar and restaurant in New York City -- quickly shifted to slinging specialty drinks via curbside pickup and delivery until restrictions are eased. But the staffers are taking service amid the pandemic "one day at a time" until they construct a plan to fully reopen.

The bar at Caffe Dante in New York City in an undated photo before the coronavirus pandemic.
Dante/Steve Freihon

"To be honest, none of us have any idea as to when things will really start to change," Linden Pride, owner of the Greenwich Village staple, told ABC News. "This whole process has pushed us to create a full takeout and delivery menu, as well as cocktails to-go, which has taken us out of our comfort zone to create new, alternative experiences for our guests."

Pride said he wants to continue the new experiences "once this is all over." He and his wife, Natalie, got the idea from a pop-up cocktail event in New Orleans, where people "drink in a plastic cup and walk down the street." They found thousands of stickers left over that read, "'One for the road,' or 'a roadie' as we call it in Australia," Pride added.

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He hailed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for quickly recognizing current liquor-licensing regulations that needed to be amended.

"As soon as the changes were brought into effect, which allowed cocktails to be purchased both for pick-up and delivery, with food, we saw this as an opportunity to try and keep the business operational, which would allow us to retain staff whilst continuing to provide a service to the community," Pride told ABC News.

Pride said, "it's so hard to know" definitively what service operations at Dante might look like in the future, but that he and his staff are keeping a close eye on operations in other states, including Georgia and Colorado.

"When we're allowed to open, we will adhere to CDC, WHO and state guidelines," Pride said, adding that he's already stocked up on thermometers to check people's temperatures at the door and that he's looking into creating disposable menus and setting up sanitizing stations, in addition to enforcing social distancing.

"One cool initiative" he's seen at bars and restaurants in parts of Europe, "is the extension of outdoor dining -- with some street closures." Pride said he sees a "real opportunity in New York" for designated outdoor dining and drinking areas to enable places on low-traffic streets to set up "socially distanced tables" and serve people responsibly.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that the possibility of restaurants and bars opening in the city's streets is "being very thoroughly discussed" and "something we might be able to reach."

"I've been talking to restaurant owners ... they're making a great case that this could be a difference-maker," de Blasio said. "You have the right social distancing and protections, the right capacity ... and the right atmosphere. We have to be smart about it." This could only come after New York City meets the city's indicators for 10 to 14 days and meets the state's indicators, which de Blasio said could be possible in the first half of June.

Pride said that with "any kind of reopening, it doesn't mean that customers are going to flock to [bars] and fill up those seats." Dante will look for other inventive options to recreate what Pride calls the "ritual and experience" of going out, like "creating a Friday night takeaway kit" complete with cocktails and a playlist to give customers the full experience at home.

Pride has also been in contact with close friends in the industry, including the operator of New York's PDT, and said bars and lounges that rely solely on beverages and bottle service will face "a huge challenge because they don't have full-service kitchens."

A standard liquor license requires nightclubs and bars to serve food in order to run a full-service beer, wine and liquor operation, according to the New York State Liquor Authority.

Eddie Dean, owner of the Brooklyn club Schimanski, has been through many ups and downs after 30 years in the nightlife business, but he's worried now about bars and clubs.

PHOTO: A restaurant posts a closed sign in the early evening in Brooklyn after a decree that all bars and restaurants shutdown by 8 pm, in New York City, on March 16, 2020, as much of the nation takes extra precautions due to the coronavirus outbreak.
A bar posts a closed sign in the early evening in Brooklyn after a decree that all bars and restaurants shutdown by 8 pm, in New York City, on March 16, 2020, as much of the nation takes extra precautions due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

"These businesses are built on volume. A very large percentage of small bars and restaurants pretty much go week to week hoping to make payroll," he told ABC News. "I imagine a high percentage of New York City-based hospitality businesses will not reopen -- or open but not be able to sustain. It's going to be ugly."

Schimanski "acted fast to close down" -- perishable items cleaned out, sound equipment covered, employees furloughed. Dean now is having "preliminary conversations" with the landlord to "get through this mess as best as possible."

Inside Brooklyn, New York nightclub, Schimanski, in an undated photo before the coronavirus pandemic.

"So far," he added, "I have not heard anything positive for clubs. Any notion of opening at 25 or 50% capacity or even 75% isn't realistic. We will do what it takes to ensure the safety of our staff and all our guests."

Even amid the current difficulties, Dean said there have been silver linings, like staying in touch with his team and "thinking of new ideas and concepts." And being able to rest a bit "has been welcome."

"Anyone who knows me knows I love a good challenge. This is certainly a big challenge. I can't wait to get back and do great things," he added.

Slate, a multi-floor lounge and nightclub with multiple bars and hundreds of hands-on games like pool and ping pong, has catered to Manhattan's lively late-night crowds for over 20 years. But it could struggle welcoming back customers at a 6-foot distance.

Owner Aristotle "Telly" Hatzigeorgiou told ABC News, "We're adjusting as best we can."

The owner's plan for a return to operations will eventually include "strict sanitation guidelines that will be followed between each use, and we'll make sure all tables, chairs and games are spread apart enough that people can safely socially distance themselves."

A gust plays pool at Slate in New York City in an undated photo, before the coronavirus pandemic.

He added: "Temperatures will be taken at the door. Hand sanitation stations will be placed all over the venue, and markers will be placed both inside and on the sidewalk outside for any line that may form to ensure guests stay 6 feet apart while we check IDs, take temperatures and check coats."

Hatzigeorgiou plans to take full advantage of the sprawling 17,000-square foot, two-floor space. "Once restaurants are given the OK to open in NYC," he said, "we can start to open some parts of Slate."

For bars with live music, like Howl at the Moon in San Antonio, COVID-19 could silence the big, bustling crowds that scribble down song requests and pass the papers up through the bar to the stage.

Denise Ramirez, a musician who plays piano at the hopping venue on the San Antonio Riverwalk, told ABC News that after three years there she has a different perspective for what a new normal could mean.

"Howl is typically a packed house, especially on weekends when we get a lot of bachelorette parties and birthday parties booking up tables," she said.

The music-centric bar has 14 different locations in the U.S. and has to keep track of "all the different regulations being put in place by different state and local governments," Ramirez explained. "I can only assume that's only made it more difficult for them as a company to figure out what they're going to do."

"Their plan is to wait until bars can open at a full capacity or near-full capacity, because in their words, 'Howl has to be Howl,' which makes sense to me," the pianist said. "I've been part of a now-closed Howl establishment in New York City and have seen what happens if it tries to remain open for only five people on a Tuesday. And I think it's the right move."

Ramirez and the other entertainers, bartenders, servers and door attendants were furloughed, and she thinks they will "wait quite a bit before reopening," even with the state of Texas currently reopening restaurants at 25% capacity. "The return to nightlife is going to be a mixed bag. I would expect lots of excitement from everyone having cabin fever, but I'd also expect quite a few rules in place."

"I don't think anyone wants to be singing on stage with masks on," Ramirez said about a discussion with her fellow musician friends. "We turn to nightlife to escape from our problems, so having a reminder of the pandemic onstage in front of us would kind of defeat that purpose."

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