Cocktail Bars Demand Action in Light of COVID-19 Closures

Ludlow Liquors is one of thousands of bars around the country currently closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

As bars and restaurants close across the country, many have quickly pivoted to a range of measures to try to mitigate the financial devastation impacting their businesses and employees. A number of organizations are raising funds for the industry, and many bars are selling delivery and to-go cocktails, launching merchandise to generate donations for those out of work, promoting gift cards and launching GoFundMe campaigns. But now, with the COVID-19 closures looking like they might last months rather than weeks, most bars are going to need more than the support of their most loyal fans in order to recover from the long-term damage.

Houston bar owner Bobby Heugel went live on Instagram with Campari national portfolio brand ambassador Anne-Louise Marquis to discuss some of the longer-term initiatives bars can implement immediately that will make an impact in the long run. “What our industry needs to understand is that relief packages are being determined by our government for different industries, and collectively our industry does a poor job of communicating what we need,” Heugel says. “Instead, we’re focused on doing to-go cocktails, we are worried about how we can be transitioning to delivery, and all those things might be important for your restaurant, but frankly they are small potatoes compared to what you need to accomplish every day.”

If bartenders, owners and fans want to help make change happen, Heugel suggests spending at least 5% of your daily energy on being a political voice for the industry, reaching out to local and national government representatives to send a clear message that the bar world needs help. “If you don’t, the amount of allocation we will get from relief is going to slowly be re-allocated to other industries that have built-in lobbyists, stronger voices, and don’t have anything to do right now but ask the government for more relief … we need every single person in this industry to act. It’s the most important thing you can do right now,” Heugel says, adding to ask for things like: suspending sales tax and liquor tax for bars to give owners flexibility to manage costs more efficiently, offering unemployment penalty exemptions, and enacting rent abatement.

If you are a bartender, bar owner or supporter of the bar industry you can use this template letter, written by Heugel and edited by Marquis, to make requests to your local government officials.

Bartenders and owners from around the rest of the country echo much of what Heugel has been advocating for on his social media channels, highlighting specific measures they believe would be helpful in the long term. In Washington, D.C., Derek Brown, owner of Columbia Room, says he’s grateful for the SBA loans being made available but adds one of the biggest needs the bar world needs right now is rent abatement. “I realize that this is a hardship all around, but expecting a business that has, more or less, been forcibly shuttered, to pay rent as though it was business as usual is short-sighted,” he says.

In New York City, Natasha David, co-owner of Nitecap, started a GoFundMe for the bar as a short-term intervention. She echoes Brown’s sentiments about rent relief. “The restaurants and bars that closed quite literally sacrificed themselves in an act of love to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. We did this to help, and because we felt it was irresponsible of us to stay open and promote people leaving their homes. And we went ahead and did it knowing that our staff would become unemployed and that there is a very real possibility that our businesses, that is to say the dreams we built, won’t open back up.” David says now it’s the government’s turn to pass rent abatement legislation as the first step into the future. “It’s also in the landlord’s best interest, otherwise they are just going to have empty storefront after empty storefront when this is all over. And I recognize that landlords are thinking about their mortgages etc., so there needs to be a delay put in place for them as well. It has to trickle down to everyone. We have to combat this as a united front.”

Death & Co.‘s David Kaplan added, “We, and everyone else in the industry, need immediate rent abatement, tax deferrals, eviction protection, and clear access to relief funds. We need this at local and federal levels. And we need to make the government force insurance companies to include this pandemic as a triggering event under their business interruption policies.” All three of the Death & Co. locations are currently closed, but they have launched an emergency fund for their staff that will be matched up to $10,000 from their largest investor, via a GoFundMe page here.

In Chicago, Lost Lake owner Shelby Alison says in the immediate term the hospitality industry needs “a way to support their undocumented workers who are out of jobs but cannot file for unemployment.” In the long term, she says, “we will need some kind of relief from the tremendous toll that having 25 employees file for unemployment is going to take on our unemployment insurance tax rating.”

Wade McElroy, co-founder of Leisure Activities in Chicago, likens the situation to a sinking ship that needs direct and immediate help. Together with local company Stock Mfg. Co., McElroy and partner Jeff Donahue launched a line of merchandise via Chicago Hospitality United to raise funds for more than 100 bars and restaurants in the Chicago area. “Some very helpful things would come in the form of emergency unemployment benefits for all furloughed or laid-off employees, a sales tax holiday until bars and restaurants are able to regain steady business, government support in rent and loan abatement from our landlords and lenders, and access to zero interest loans geared towards the reopening process.”

McElroy believes these simple steps would go a long way in helping to get bars back on their feet, but he adds, “that will only be the beginning of what will be a long road back to normal. In the meantime, continue to support each other, be social digitally, and check in with your friends and family frequently. We will get through this together.”