Nevada bar owners relieved as final closure orders lift, fear more shake-ups
The Nevada Independent
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was first published Sept. 20 by The Nevada Independent, and later updated with comments on Sept. 20, and is republished here with permission. For more Nevada news, including wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage and a constantly updating live blog, visit The Nevada Independent.
Nevada businesses have held on tight during the curves and swerves of the pandemic, and bars have had an especially tumultuous journey.
Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered bars that do not serve food to close in seven counties with surging COVID cases in early July after allowing them to reopen a little more than a month earlier. The state has allowed counties to reopen bars in waves over the past two months.
Following a vote Sept. 17 by Nevada’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force, patrons in the last two counties with shutdown orders — Clark and Elko — will be able to raise a glass with the rest of the state beginning Sunday at 11:59 p.m.
“A bar, historically, is that place where you get together with a friend or two and have a good conversation or raise a glass to something special happening in your life,” said Will Truce, co-founder of Black Rabbit Mead Company in Reno. “And so I think there’s been a lot of people in our community that have really missed that.”
Washoe County received clearance to reopen bars on Sept. 10 when officials determined the county was no longer at an “elevated risk of disease transmission.” Businesses were able to open their doors beginning the following Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 11:59 p.m.
Though Clark and Elko remain on the list of at-risk counties, the state determined that their “significant progress” meant reopening would be safe. Clark County submitted a series of letters from local bar owners voicing their commitment to safety and desire to reopen. Lyon and Mineral counties also remain on the list of counties with elevated risk.
In recent weeks, health officials throughout the state and country have posited that bar reopenings might increase the number of coronavirus cases, but bar owners remain optimistic about the public’s ability to follow guidelines and argue that allowing restaurants and casinos to remain open while singling out bars for closure is inconsistent and hypocritical.
The Nevada Independent spoke with a few bar owners in the counties that are reopening, including Elko and Washoe. Following are some of their stories.
Will Truce, Black Rabbit Mead Co., Reno
When Will Truce, a former high school teacher and the co-founder of Black Rabbit Mead Company in Reno, found out his business would be able to reopen to serve customers again, his first reaction was an overwhelming sense of excitement.
“We were ecstatic and very hopeful,” Truce said. “It’s like getting a big breath of air for the first time in a long time.”
But alongside the relief that breath of air offered came other feelings — stress, fear and uncertainty.
Although the lifting of restrictions gives Black Rabbit the opportunity to begin rebuilding a brand that’s been struggling since March, Truce was given similar hope this summer when bars were temporarily given permission to reopen, then told to revert back to solely curbside service.
“[Curbside service] was really good at first. There is a lot of support from the community,” he said. “And then as time went on and restaurants were able to satisfy that role the bar was playing, curbside really stopped being very helpful.”
Truce attributed the drop-off in the profitability of curbside service both to Reno residents feeling “stir-crazy” and wanting to do more than simply pick up alcohol and bring it back home, and to lessened media attention as lockdown stretched on. Truce says most bars he’s spoken with also have not been seeing much revenue from curbside service.
“But we also empathize that you don’t necessarily want to always be drinking at home,” he added. “There’s more to life and more to our craft culture than just supporting [businesses]. There’s also the importance of getting out into your community and being able to raise a glass with friends and family.”
Truce expects a boost from customers who are excited to return to a bar environment but also says the brewery won’t be able to instantly recover from the economic toll of the pandemic.
When it first shut its doors in March, Black Rabbit had only been open for about six months.
“The larger following you had going into the pandemic, the less challenging it’s going to be to bring those folk back in,” he said. “That’s not to say that it’s not challenging for everybody on some level, but no doubt businesses that are new and don’t really have a fixed position in the community’s mindset are going to struggle more.”
For Truce, the combination of hope and stress during the reopening is reminiscent of the brewery’s beginnings only a year ago.
“It feels like we’re opening for the first time again,” he said. “With almost a new business model and a business model that we still haven’t thought out and we don’t fully understand. There’s excitement, but there’s a lot of craziness with that.”
Matt Johnson, IMBIB Custom Brews, Reno
In early April, when bars in Reno were forced to shut down all service, IMBIB Custom Brews co-founder Matt Johnson held a free beer giveaway for first responders. Since then, operating the brewery has been a rollercoaster for Johnson, who has had to quickly transition his business from closed, to curbside operations, to open, and back to curbside in order to comply with county regulations.
On Sept. 10, Johnson got the news that he would again be able to reopen IMBIB’s doors and continue serving the Northern Nevada community.
“It was a lot of excitement because we had been really fighting to advocate for our industry and try to show that we could do things safely,” Johnson said. “But certainly some anxiety because we transitioned back and forth so many times. Yeah, there’s a lot that goes into planning to reopen.”
Johnson, who is president of the Nevada Craft Brewers Association, is also concerned that actions taken by other breweries could affect IMBIB’s ability to stay open.
“We’re confident in our process and ability to follow the guidelines, but my concern is will other bars start to cut corners, make us, once again, look bad?” he said.
In addition to curbside services, the brewery was dependent on federal loans in order to stay afloat, receiving funding through the Paycheck Protection Program as well as an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Still, employees had to be furloughed and apply for unemployment during the six-month lag in business.
“Unfortunately, the hardest part is when you’ve had employees who’ve been furloughed for six months. Not all of them can — or want to — return.”
Pre-pandemic, the brewery had 10 employees. Four will return.
But, those who will return are returning to serve a community that is excited to have them back. Even during the county-mandated closures, Johnson said he would hear from customers confused about why they couldn’t stop by their favorite brewery.
“We even had people who would come to the business and try to come in the front door and then call and say ‘Why is your door locked?’” he said. “A couple times it was [anger], and I don’t know how or why they got to that point, but for the most part, people really understood.”
When IMBIB did open its doors again, it was met with crowds excited to come in and enjoy a beer, including many of the regulars.
“I don’t expect it to be crazy crowded and overwhelming,” Johnson said. “But I think there’s a lot of people who were glad they can get a beer again in a safe environment other than their houses or a restaurant.”
And to maintain that safe environment, IMBIB, like all other bars in the state, will require social distancing and the wearing of masks. Although Johnson expects some resistance on the mask rules, he’s not going to cut any corners.
“We have a zero tolerance policy at this point. We just can’t risk it,” he said. “We’ve tried to accommodate everybody and everything, but we’re at a point now where, with our livelihoods at risk, if I lose one customer because he refuses to wear a mask, I’m okay with that.”
Overall, Johnson said he appreciates the communication that’s been occurring between his business and the county and the opportunity this reopening provides to prove that breweries and bars can be run safely even in the midst of a pandemic.
“We’re just hopeful that they will enforce the rules with those bad actors in the industry without punishing all of us,” he said.
Jeremy Warren and Darla Roberts, Revision Brewing Company, Sparks
Revision Brewing Company in Sparks has experienced ups and downs since the pandemic hit, but one of the most challenging moments came when CEO and brewmaster Jeremy Warren stood on a picnic table and let his team know that layoffs and pay cuts were inevitable.
Darla Roberts, the vice president of marketing and public relations and a co-founder of Revision Brewing Company, said the image is seared into her brain.
“We were all doing our best to act strong, but we were choking back tears as he spoke to our incredible team, talking about the uncertainty that lay ahead, looking out at the sea of eyes of all of the people that truly make Revision wonderful,” Roberts said.
Stimulus checks and then unexpected PPP funding allowed the company to bring back most of its team. Still, the taproom situation was complicated by constantly changing directives from the county, Roberts said.
“Our staff feels the brunt of it as they had to apply for unemployment, which was a nightmare for them, get called back for a month, and then return back to being laid off and go through the process all over again,” Roberts said.
The reopening of casinos but not bars frustrated the brewery, which had to cut back production, destroy date-sensitive products and adjust to running curbside deliveries. The brewery also faced shortages of CO2, which gives the beer its bubbles, that in turn drove up costs, Warren said.
“Revision cut new production by 50 percent in the beginning. After bracing for impact we made revisions and shifted to over 90 percent of our product going into package versus keg,” Warren said.
While the brewery slowly climbed back to normal pre-COVID production levels thanks to other carriers, bar openings will help financially. Warren said the brewery is taking every precaution possible with a strict cleaning schedule, mask requirements, wellness screenings and other safeguards.
Going forward, Warren fears for his employees’ well-being, though.
“[I’m worried about] keeping up our team’s morale and mental state in an environment that is inevitably less collective due to safety precautions,” Warren said.
Roberts also worries about the potential for bars and breweries to be singled out for closure again.
“We were ecstatic to find out that we could reopen. However, there’s that awful gut feeling saying don’t get your hopes up on this being for any long duration,” Roberts said. “We’ve been here before.”
Lauren Duarte, Stray Dog Pub and Cafe, Elko
Bar owners in Nevada’s third-most populous county are also itching to put barstools back out again after the hiatus.
Stray Dog Pub and Cafe manager Lauren Duarte said the business fared extremely well amid the shutdowns, despite the grave economic circumstances across the state. The owners of the downtown Elko pub were able to reopen with restrictions along with restaurants in early June, have added rather than lost employees, and also managed to make the most of the situation by taking a few weeks to remodel.
The hardest part for Duarte has been navigating the tumultuous changes in state guidelines, such as mask mandates, and ensuring her employees are up to speed on what’s expected of the business.
“I think all of our employees understand that if we want to stay in business right now, those are the requirements that have to be met,” she said. “And we’ve been really lucky that our customers have been really understanding of that as well.”
Duarte said she’s excited for the reopening of the bar Monday night, which she expects will be busier than a typical Monday night before the pandemic.
“I think it will be great,” she said. “We have found in the past that the more businesses that are open and operating in the downtown corridor, the more business that we have, so it always works out to be beneficial to us.”
Jacque Errecart, Duncan Littlecreek Gallery, Elko
Duncan Littlecreek Gallery, an art gallery and bar that does not have a restaurant license, has struggled throughout the shutdown.
The building has been in business owner Jacque Errecart’s family since 1959 — he remembers helping his father with the bar when he was as young as three years old, carrying two bottles of brandy or two six-packs of beer into the building.
Errecart and his partner and co-owner Joan Anderson, who are both also architects, made the difficult decision to shutter their doors amid the spread of COVID-19 early on, despite local businesses that ignored the state guidelines and a county sheriff who publicly stated he would not enforce Sisolak’s rules.
For Errecart, the decision was about being morally responsible for mitigating the spread in the community, especially for people with underlying health conditions. So, the couple filled their windows with art from the gallery and signs saying they missed their loyal customers and friends.
“We are tough, and we’re going to have to be,” he said, referring to enforcing mask and social distancing rules. “I’m no kid anymore and there’s multiple factors for being really careful about spreading it.”
The art gallery and bar took a significant financial hit during the shutdown, but Errecart is confident the business will be back to where they were previous to the pandemic within 30 days — assuming they won’t have to close again amid new surges in cases.
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