It’s go-time for the American bar scene. The COVID-19 pandemic, while waning, is not yet over and still poses a danger for those who are unvaccinated, but the combination of reduced cases and increased vaccination rates have compelled most states to relax mask mandates and ease capacity restrictions for bars and restaurants. Those that haven’t yet will likely be doing so very soon.
This is good news for customers that miss their favorite watering holes. Yet it doubles as a launch of an inadvertent sociological case study. After spending more than a year stuck at home, ordering to-go cocktails, making their own drinks and minimizing in-person interaction, bar patrons suddenly have permission to gather, socialize and drink in packed public spaces once more. Their ability to act appropriately and engage in a bar may be a bit rusty after a long time away. How are things going so far?
An Eager Yet Awkward Return
On May 21, Washington, D.C., announced that bars could fully reopen. The city’s residents treated the declaration like a track-and-field starter’s gun. “That opening weekend after the announcement was bananas,” says Christine Kim, the lead bartender at D.C.’s Service Bar. “People are already acting like the pandemic never happened. It has been so strange to witness, almost like a shock to the system.”
This mad rush was somewhat expected. Predictions of the post-pandemic bar scene resembling the Roaring ’20s spread as the pandemic rolled on. It’s also a slightly clumsy affair. Guests show an eagerness to be social, but their attempts at interacting with people are a bit rough. “I’m still seeing awkward moments where people look around and are like, “Is this OK?’ ‘Can I sit here?’ “Can I walk to the bathroom with my drink?’” says Jamie White, the owner of Pearl Diver and Lucky’s 3 Star in Nashville. “All kinds of things seem to go through their head before they do something.”
Bartenders are feeling similarly uncertain. “Honestly, I’ve been awkward too,” says Kim. “I haven’t been behind the bar in one-and-a-half years, so I’m out of practice. It has been weird engaging with strangers again.”
Of course, the pandemic’s continued presence adds a unique layer to the situation. While vaccinations embolden some to eschew social distancing, bar pros note that not everyone’s ready to plunge back into bar-going as it existed before. This has caused some bars to ease into the new drinking landscape at a cautious pace. “We’re still keeping some restrictions in place until we feel safe,” says Dave Oz, the owner of Bathtub Gin in New York City. “While some customers aren’t fearful, there are some that still carry a little fear of a place that’s too crowded. It’s our job to make those people feel comfortable.”
Empathy Is Needed
Even as bars emerge from their mandated slumber, they’re not fully awake. Supply chain disruptions and staffing issues still haunt the industry, making a full return to normal more difficult than it may appear to a bar-goer. “Coming back was like a flip of the switch for customers,” says John Dye, the owner of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee. “But bars can’t flip like that. Bars are complex machines, and it takes some time and effort to get that machine running at full speed again.”
The degree of bar guests’ empathy is another concern. “I’m hoping that people remember what the industry went through and that gives them a better understanding of certain things we’ve done,” says George Lahlouh, the co-owner of Paper Plane in San Jose, California. “Take pricing, for example. The supply chain got royally messed up during the pandemic, and we could only do so much to keep prices down. When customers return and notice their $13 to $14 cocktail is now in the $15 to $16 range, I’m hopeful people will understand we’re not trying to gouge them.”
Fortunately, most people seem to be conscientious of the industry’s struggles so far. Indeed, the return to revelry has mostly been marked by patience and kindness, even among those that reached legal drinking age during the pandemic. That’s not to say there aren’t any outliers. Rude and obnoxious patrons have returned at about the same level of frequency as they appeared in the pre-pandemic days, say bartenders, and they range from the loud and demanding folks Lahlouh dubs “bartop slappers” to entitled types blatantly disregarding the late Sasha Petraske’s cardinal “no name dropping” rule. “We’ve had quite a few people show up at our bar and tell us directly ‘I know the owner,” says Simone Rubio, the bar director at Under CDM in the wealthy Newport Beach, California, enclave of Corona Del Mar. “They think it’s cool or something, which it’s not. Thankfully, our staff has gotten good at calling them on it in a kind and gentle manner.”
What Are They Drinking?
Much like the response to the pandemic itself, the drinking habits of returning bar guests vary. Veteran cocktail enthusiasts have quickly snapped back into drinking the drinks that bring them joy. Younger guests who discovered new brands and watched cocktail how-tos on social media come to the bar eager to learn more. And there are some that are simply glad to be drinking something in a place other than inside their home. “At the moment, some people don’t really care what they are drinking, as long as it has booze in it,” says White.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong drink for a person to enjoy when they return to the bar. The fact that fully vaccinated guests can finally return and support a still-beleaguered industry is a wonderful thing, regardless of what’s in their highball, coupe or double-rocks glass.