“I may lose this battle, but I run a business. I need to be open.”

By Gowri Chandra
Updated May 30, 2020
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As government officials have ordered the closure of dine-in restaurants and bars in efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic, some insist on defying the order.

It’s almost always a losing battle—if not against the police, then against the public.

In Enid, Oklahoma, a bar was slapped with a $565 fine on March 29,  Enid News reports. This was after the governor had ordered all bars and restaurants closed two weeks prior. The Spot, a sports bar and music venue, had already been issued a warning when police officers came by again, having received calls from neighbors. Although its front door was locked, people were knocking on the back entrance to be let in, speakeasy style. Police issued the owner a citation.

In Winnebago, Minnesota, Shooters Bar also continued to operate behind locked doors. Police stopped by after spotting four cars in the parking lot late into the night on March 22. After initial resistance (one customer asked the cops to come back with an official warrant), backup cops were called to the scene. The patrons eventually left, KDMA News reports. The owner called it “communism.” He was charged with a misdemeanor and faces up to a $1000 fine.

In Fair Oaks, California, the San Juan Club initially vowed to stay open after the governor asked bars to close on March 15. The owner told CBS Sacramento, “...I am not going to close unless they come in and say you’re done.” It’s unclear if that’s happened yet—or if it will.

Björn Mußmann / EyeEm / Getty Images

While California Governor Gavin Newsom has “directed” all bars to stop on-site consumption (takeout is okay!), he’s stopped short of issuing an official legal mandate like in Ohio and Illinois. “I’m not concerned about [the enforcement side of this],” he said at a March 15 press conference. “We have seen strong and broad support ... from the private sector."

Even without police enforcement, public pushback has been enough to get some bars to obey. After going public with its intent, San Juan Club received several angry comments on Yelp. Owner Nick Jamson responded, “I do not believe that I should have to close my business to people that want to come in. It’s their choice.” That was on March 16, just a day after the governor’s directive. It’s unclear if the bar is still operating—Jamson did not respond to comment.

At Snapper’s Bar and Grill in Indiana, owner Joe Sartie initially promised to stay open too. “This is my Alamo,” he told the The Herald & Review. The same day that the governor ordered all bars to close, he wrote on Facebook, “We won't be closed folks, no matter what the governor, the president, or anyone says.” He did note that he wouldn’t require employees to come in, instead giving them PTO—but he’d be working himself, at the bar.

“How am I supposed to pay my employees and utilities and everything else if we are closed?” he said. “I may lose this battle, but I run a business. I need to be open.”

After hundreds of outraged comments on Facebook, Sartie’s daughter deleted her dad’s post. She issued an explanation and an apology. “I also would like to add that the post was very controversial and I, myself, his daughter, did not agree with the language and message it portrayed,” she wrote. Two days later, the restaurant pivoted to delivery and takeout only.

Expressing regret for what happened, Sartie’s daughter described the restaurant’s importance to her family. “Pat, my grandma … comes up everyday and helps the servers. Everyday,” she wrote. “Carm, my grandpa, who washes the dishes almost every single day at 85 years old!! (when he’s not out running around this crazy world), and several other of our dedicated cooks, waitresses, and bartenders … We are truly emotionally and physically shocked, for all businesses and people who this has affected.”

Her post underscores the tough situations that many small business owners are finding themselves in—being forced to close for the greater social good, at the cost of their employees’ paychecks. It’s inarguable that shuttering is the responsible thing to do during this time. But that doesn’t make paying rent any less brutal. Amber Carter, a bartender at the San Juan Club, was grateful for some continued employment. “I have a son, so me not working would really be bad because I am a single mother,” Carter told CBS Sacramento.

You may have heard of bars pivoting to to-go operations, in efforts to keep operating under public health guidelines. And it’s true, “roadie” cocktails are now allowed in states like California, New York, and Colorado. But takeout and delivery are still operationally complex for a lot of small businesses. What’s more, for a lot of them, it’s just not worth it—even for restaurants racking up large food orders, which usually bring in more money than to-go cocktails. For Steve Palmer’s 16 restaurants, it’s just “not viable from a business point of view,” he told Food & Wine last month.

Palmer is managing partner at The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which operates in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. For him, takeout and delivery is mostly about his providing tips to his staff—not actually sustaining his business. “Customers are being very generous, which is awesome,” he says. “If it helps their families, then we want to continue to do takeout.”

Unlike in Britain, where mandated bar closures are cushioned with the government paying 80% of staff’s missed wages, no similar safety net exists in the United States. Unemployment payouts in California and New York are capped at $450 and $504 per week respectively, far below the actual living wage, according to MIT experts.

If you’re looking for ways to support your local unemployed or underemployed bartenders, here are ways you can Venmo them directly. If you’re an out-of-work hospitality worker, we’ve compiled a list of financial resources here.