BOISE — The Overland Bar has been a neighborhood dive bar since 1949, but soon it will be in the food business.
Owner Kurtis Hawkins is in the process of retrofitting his business to pass a health inspection to serve food so it can once again open its doors after Central District Health ordered bars and nightclubs to close for a second time on June 24. If he gets a food permit, he will be considered a restaurant once again be able to bring some money in.
“I will reopen the bar as a restaurant because I don’t have any other options,” Hawkins said. “It just costs me $12,000 a month to sit there.”
Hawkins is one of many bar owners in Ada County struggling to survive the monthslong, government-mandated shutdowns that have rocked the small-business world since mid-March when the pandemic hit. Some are trying to weather the storm by relying on savings, others are opening as restaurants, but they are all begging for relief — to either reopen or receive financial assistance from the same local officials who ordered them shuttered.
When the shutdown first closed The Overland Bar, Hawkins was as prepared as he could have been. He had money for expenses saved up and applied for several of the relief packages for small businesses available from the state and federal government, but now that he is closed again he is out of lifelines. He is now considering selling his car, his camper or possibly his house to get some fast cash.
“This time was a little different because there really isn’t any help now,” he said. “I had three months saved and that’s what got us through the first shutdown, but now we don’t have anything.”
Bars initially closed in Boise on March 19 on an order from Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, a week before the governor’s March 25 stay-home order. Bars were allowed to reopen May 30, but had to close again less than a month later per a Central District Health order for Ada County following a cluster of COVID-19 cases tied to bars.
Since mid-June, COVID-19 cases and deaths have continued to rise in Ada County and elsewhere in Idaho.
Bar owners say they were unfairly targeted by the health district, and their bars are not any more dangerous than dine-in restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters or any of the other businesses that are open right now. But, Brandon Atkins, a spokesman for Central District Health, said although the district is sympathetic to the struggles of bar owners, there are numerous reasons they put people at risk for spreading COVID-19.
The disease is most often spread in aerosolized particles from breathing or talking in enclosed spaces with others for long periods of time. Atkins said bars often have people mingling around each other in crowds and talking over loud music, which makes it worse. He acknowledged that some bars had been making strides to comply with distancing guidelines, but it was still difficult to prevent the spread.
“If bars are more congruent to restaurants where you have tables socially distanced, you have servers that are addressing the tables, you can add PPE and all of the things (our department has) recommended very, very diligently, it would be a different story,” he said. “But bars haven’t operated like that.”
Rocci Johnson, owner of nightclub Humpin’ Hannah’s on Main Street and one of the bars named by Central District Health as being part of the cluster, disagrees. She acknowledged that some bars have not been as focused on following guidelines as others, there are many owners who want the chance to reopen and do it right. Prior to being closed a second time, Johnson said Humpin’ Hannah’s spread out the tables, closed the dance floor except for one night a week, dedicated certain employees to focus only on cleaning, closed the bar top, and placed out hand sanitizer.
“It’s not just a Boise conversation, because every time you listen to the media you say, ‘Oh the bars,’ and they use that as a blanket term for our industry,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that I think there’s a misconception out there that the bars are to blame, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Her business is better off than some because Johnson and her business partners own the building and the liquor license, but the club still has roughly $20,000 in fixed costs every month they have to pay if they are closed. She is hoping for some kind of relief, or the ability to reopen with a new plan to have the club transition to a business model that encourages customers to sit at tables to talk while quiet music plays, instead of a traditional club atmosphere.
“Honestly, now that we’ve been closed for the length of time we have, I feel that everybody would be willing to do the things they’ve got to do in order for us to be open and in order for our businesses to survive,” she said. “They’d be willing to say, ‘I know I’ve got to wear a mask, I know I can’t do certain things.’”
A few blocks away, business is booming for Russ Crawforth at The Mode Lounge. He was initially closed, but went to Central District Health and reinstated his food permit for the bar and is now serving customers.
“We were very busy before, and we’re busy again,” he said. “People want to be in there. I’m assuming someone is going to come and try to shut me down at some point, but I don’t feel like I did anything wrong.”
He said it was frustrating to sit in his closed bar and watch people go to nearby restaurants and breweries, sit on the patio and order drink after drink and no food, so he decided to find a way to open.
“What are they doing out there we can’t do just to serve people at drinks?” he said. “It’s been a really brainless way (Central District Health) has gone about doing it.”