As Athens Bars Reopen, Owners Hope For Economic Boost
Social distancing has meant a pause on social drinking, a major piece of the service economy in Athens. However, the majority of late-night spots in town have decided to keep their doors shut even after being given the greenlight to ease coronavirus restrictions and reopen.
At a press conference on May 28, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that bars and nightclubs could reopen on Monday, June 1, given that they follow 39 mandatory safety measures.
These measures include a limit to how many patrons may be inside a bar, requirements that all employees wear facemasks and increased sanitation, among other rules.
Bars have an especially thin profit margin after paying for alcohol licenses, insurance, utilities, and, in some cases, rent, so closures have not been easy. In addition, Athens-Clarke County has lost money since bar closures - the county collects a 3% excise tax on the sale of any mixed drinks or of distilled liquor or spirits. This tax, as well as a 1% sales tax, earned the county roughly $960,000 in 2019, according to county records collected by The Red and Black.
Some Athens bars such as The World Famous on Hull Street got creative during bar closures, requiring reservations for patrons interested in an intimate dining experience. Creature Comforts, one of Athens’ most popular breweries, has been offering a drive-through pickup for its beers and merchandise.
Mohsen Mohseni Moghadam, owner of International Grill and Bar on Mitchell Bridge Road, has kept his restaurant open throughout local shelter-in-place ordinances. Moghadam decided to open his bar on Monday night, confident that he and his staff have plenty of practice following the policies outlined by Gov. Kemp’s executive order.
"You know, we're trying everything we can do to make sure we play it safe," Moghadam said. "But there's no way to tell whether or not our customers are going to feel that way or not."
International Grill and Bar opened November 2019, just a few months before many Georgia counties imposed quarantine orders on residents and non-essential businesses. Moghadam said his restaurant has suffered a nearly 85% decrease in sales, and he has been forced to limit hours for his employees.
"Just making money is not the only reason behind opening the bar; returning to the normalcy that we have before is also a driving force behind it,"Moghadam said. "Also, I want to be able to provide more hours for my bartenders, barbacks and staff … to provide for them the opportunity to come back and work."
Former bartender Bryant Keith was apprehensive about the reopening. After working at seven different bars throughout his time in Athens, he said he’s unsure that bars will be able to meet all the state-mandated requirements while still being functional.
For example, bars are required to provide service "only to seated patrons, or, if not applicable, to patrons in designated areas that are practicing Social Distancing." Tables must be limited to six patrons at a time and any actions encouraging congregated groups are discouraged against, if not prohibited.
"There's people out there that don't care about it," Keith said regarding the possibility of contracting COVID-19. "So they're just going to go in there, start slamming shots, and then they're gonna act like nothing's happening."
The scene on the first night bars could have been opened was relatively quiet. On East Broad Street - downtown Athens' main strip - a small group of protesters slowly thinned out as the second night of protests against police violence, the death of George Floyd and other instances of brutality across the country, ended around 10 p.m. Less than two blocks away at Toppers International Showbar, the strip club on North Jackson Street, a neon sign boasted that day's reopening. All patrons entering the club were required to have their temperature taken upon entry, according to the Toppers door man.
Only a couple bars on each block of the downtown district were open to customers, with sparse groups of people walking along the sidewalks. A few bars with outdoor seating took advantage of the people milling around, attracting small groups outside while keeping indoor areas closed up.
At the Boar's Head Lounge, on East Washington Street, patrons streamed into the bar on Monday night, most standing within the outdoor patio area. Owner Warren Southall said he and his staff are making sure to follow all necessary precautions. In addition to state-mandated requirements, all Boar's Head employees will get their temperature taken upon entry.
"I've been kind of slowly going through the motion of following all the guidelines for a restaurant," Southall said regarding his other business venture, Fully Loaded Pizza, which recently reopened for dine-in patrons. "So, the bar was just kind of a follow up on what we'd already been doing for our restaurants."
Southall said he's lost over ten thousand dollars from the bar being closed - especially on major springtime celebrations such as the University of Georgia’s G-Day and St. Patrick's Day - putting both himself and his employees in a tight spot. He’s hopeful that a steady wave of customers will help make up for his losses. On Monday night, Southall and his staff were already seeing relatively large groups of customers.
"We're trying to section the bar up, we've got signs that say 25 people in this area and 25 people in this area," Southall said.
The majority of patrons were not wearing masks.