The future of the hospitality industry has been one of the discussions at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bars, in particular, face a huge challenge. Even though our local government has allowed bars to re-open, there are still many regulations and rules they must now follow. At a time where social distancing is the highly recommended health guideline, how does a space that normally encourages socializing in close proximity adapt? What does a bar look like when everyone is required to wear masks and stand six feet apart? What does the environment of a bar even feel like during a pandemic?
Thomas Whorley, the co-owner of Lonewolf Lounge, shared his thoughts with Do Savannah on the effects of COVID-19 on the reopening of the local bar industry.
Do: What made you decide to reopen?
Worley: "Our decision to re-open was mainly due to the downward trend in cases at the time. Additionally, we wanted to recover some of the three months of revenue we lost, in case there was a second wave. The government programs helped mitigate some of the burden on the business and employees, but that has an expiration date. At the very least we want to be able to pay people through a shutdown in which aid is non-existent or tenuous."
Do: What regulations do you now have to follow? What changes have you made to your bar?
Worley: "Regulations for bars include all staff wearing a mask when interacting with customers or behind the bar, extra sanitization efforts before, during and after a shift, dividers between seating areas that can't be spaced, service directly to the table or guest, and reduced capacity. There is a list of all the orders if you want to see exactly what had to happen. We also put an effort into expanding the square footage of the building so when we opened back up, people would have plenty of room to feel comfortable and safe. Andy and I haven't had a break yet (laughs)."
Do: How have these changes and regulations affected the dynamic of your bar?
Worley: "For the most part, the changes meant a lower capacity and the effort to keep people in or around their seats. It's not possible to stop every interaction between people, it may not even be right. Most people I observe interact with those they feel comfortable with. One of the guidelines was to discourage proximity between non-cohabiting people but it's a pretty impossible standard unless you give everyone a questionnaire to fill out. We also moved to having extra door staff on hand to keep our capacity in check and monitor issues that the bartender may not catch."
Do: How has it affected your guests? Has there been a positive or negative response?
Worley: "Our guests, for the most part, have been quite understanding and positive. I think for a lot of people it's nice to feel a little bit of normality after so many months of uncertainty and isolation."
Do: How do you personally feel about the re-opening of the bar and these changes?
Worley: "Personally, I feel that having social spaces is so important to people's psychological health. We were forced to quarantine, isolate and start to view other people around us as potential threats to our health. It isn't really a healthy way to think, despite it being a necessary step in preventing physical sickness. Being able to provide a place where people can begin to reconnect with their communities and neighbors is important and overlooked.
"Bars definitely have a bad rap with a certain set of people and we often get villainized by people in government but the truth is being able to see and interact with your neighbors is an important part of understanding them. I think these days everyone needs to be a little bit more understanding for certain."
Do: If you there was any advice you could give to the city of Savannah (patrons and/or elected officials), what would it be?
Worley: "Advice I would give to the people of Savannah: Never give up. No matter what comes, do not let it break you down. Always strive to see the good in people, to think outside the box and consider all positions. This could be in regards to how people protect their health (there has been a lot of mask shaming and conspiracy theories etc) or possibly to all the problems we are having as a society. We basically hit the emergency brake on life, but I've seen and listened to a lot of stories from everyone about their new hobby or skill they picked up or the book they finally finished.
"Advice for the politicians: please consider the burden this has placed on businesses and workers. Every level of government from federal down to local has succeeded on some things and failed on others. To blame one person, one political party etc is a really immature way of viewing the world. We need to take what worked and keep it and fix the flaws. I feel in Savannah, we have a lot of pressure from the mayor and council to enforce all these distancing guidelines, but we also are fighting back giant waves of tourism and people who've been cooped up for three months. What they may not understand is that it takes the entire city working together to make this happen. We only now have a mandatory mask requirement and this is coming after Memorial Day weekend where we saw a huge influx of people. Masks should have been implemented way earlier. Additionally, the city is still trying to squeeze revenue out of everyone to make up for their shortfall, but we still have million dollar projects on the books. If we don't take care of our people, we won't have anything worth seeing or doing after a while."
Do: How can we help support bars during this time?
Worley: "I think the thing people can do to support bars specifically is remember the rules changed dramatically and to respect the staff and their instructions. I've heard stories about people being very rude when asked to comply with certain new rules. We are only trying to do what's best for everyone's health and at the same time prevent other negative consequences like citations.
"Ultimately we just want everyone to be respectful. Also don't forget to tip, people in the bar business are putting their health at risk to give everyone a place to socialize."