Nevada businesses have held on tight during the curves and swerves of the pandemic, and bars have had an especially tumultuous journey.
Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered bars that do not serve food to close in seven counties with surging COVID cases in early July after allowing them to reopen a little more than a month earlier. The state has allowed counties to reopen bars in waves over the past two months.
Following a vote Thursday by Nevada’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force, patrons in the last two counties with shutdown orders — Clark and Elko — will be able to raise a glass with the rest of the state beginning Sunday at 11:59 p.m.
“A bar, historically, is that place where you get together with a friend or two and have a good conversation or raise a glass to something special happening in your life,” said Will Truce, co-founder of Black Rabbit Mead Company in Reno. “And so I think there’s been a lot of people in our community that have really missed that.”
Washoe County received clearance to reopen bars on Sept. 10 when officials determined the county was no longer at an “elevated risk of disease transmission.” Businesses were able to open their doors beginning the following Wednesday at 11:59 p.m.
Though Clark and Elko remain on the list of at-risk counties, the state determined that their “significant progress” meant reopening would be safe. Clark County submitted a series of letters from local bar owners voicing their commitment to safety and desire to reopen. Lyon and Mineral counties also remain on the list of counties with elevated risk.
In recent weeks, health officials throughout the state and country have posited that bar reopenings might increase the number of coronavirus cases, but bar owners remain optimistic about the public’s ability to follow guidelines and argue that allowing restaurants and casinos to remain open while singling out bars for closure is inconsistent and hypocritical.
The Nevada Independent spoke with a few bar owners in the counties that are reopening. These are their stories.
Will Truce of Black Rabbit Mead Co on the third day of bars being allowed to reopen in Washoe County on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent)
Will Truce, Black Rabbit Mead Co., Reno
When Will Truce, a former high school teacher and the co-founder of Black Rabbit Mead Company in Reno, found out his business would be able to reopen to serve customers again, his first reaction was an overwhelming sense of excitement.
“We were ecstatic and very hopeful,” Truce said. “It’s like getting a big breath of air for the first time in a long time.”
But alongside the relief that breath of air offered came other feelings — stress, fear and uncertainty.
Although the lifting of restrictions gives Black Rabbit the opportunity to begin rebuilding a brand that’s been struggling since March, Truce was given similar hope this summer when bars were temporarily given permission to reopen, then told to revert back to solely curbside service.
“[Curbside service] was really good at first. There is a lot of support from the community,” he said. “And then as time went on and restaurants were able to satisfy that role the bar was playing, curbside really stopped being very helpful.”
Truce attributed the drop-off in the profitability of curbside service both to Reno residents feeling “stir-crazy” and wanting to do more than simply pick up alcohol and bring it back home, and to lessened media attention as lockdown stretched on. Truce says most bars he’s spoken with also have not been seeing much revenue from curbside service.
“But we also empathize that you don’t necessarily want to always be drinking at home,” he added. “There’s more to life and more to our craft culture than just supporting [businesses]. There’s also the importance of getting out into your community and being able to raise a glass with friends and family.”
Truce expects a boost from customers who are excited to return to a bar environment but also says the brewery won’t be able to instantly recover from the economic toll of the pandemic.
When it first shut its doors in March, Black Rabbit had only been open for about six months.
“The larger following you had going into the pandemic, the less challenging it’s going to be to bring those folk back in,” he said. “That’s not to say that it’s not challenging for everybody on some level, but no doubt businesses that are new and don’t really have a fixed position in the community’s mindset are going to struggle more.”
For Truce, the combination of hope and stress during the reopening is reminiscent of the brewery’s beginnings only a year ago.
“It feels like we’re opening for the first time again,” he said. “With almost a new business model and a business model that we still haven’t thought out and we don’t fully understand. There’s excitement, but there’s a lot of craziness with that.”
— Kristyn Leonard
A couple walks past Atomic Liquors on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Lance Johns, Atomic Liquors, Las Vegas
When Sisolak ordered all nonessential businesses to close in March, Lance Johns was fine with turning off the lights on his bar, Atomic Liquors, because everyone was dealing with the uncertainty of the pandemic.
But the governor’s order to close all bars again a month after reopening them at the end of May was confusing to Johns, who questioned why the order didn’t target “bad actors” only.
“I’ve never seen any explanation from the governor’s task force, from anybody that has done any type of tracing or any type of numbers that supports [bars needing to be shut down],” he said. “We sit here and watch all these people pack into casinos, and yet they’re still closing the little guy down.”
Johns also runs a neighboring restaurant, Atomic Kitchen, so he’s been able to continue making revenue from that as well as his other business ventures. Still, he said closing Atomic Liquors both times was a “huge financial hit.” Johns had to use some of his rainy day savings to support business needs.
While he waited for the official go ahead, he said some bars found loopholes to stay open despite the governor’s directives.
“You had bars that were opening, serving hot dogs, a microwave hot dog and stuff … I thought they were really skirting the intent of the directives, but they got away with it,” he said. “We weren’t gonna take that chance.”
Even though the state allows bars to open on Monday, Johns said Atomic Liquors will likely open on Thursday. He has to call employees back, order specialty ingredients and check other items off his reopening list that makes it “a little more difficult for us to just open the doors and say, ‘Hey, come on in,'” he said.
Johns said that most of the customers he’s served are tired of the pandemic and are trying to get out of the house and get into bars, even if that means going to a bar looks a little different than it did pre-pandemic.
“People wear a mask now, they get with the program, but it’s like ‘OK, we’ll do our part but let us go out and socialize,’” he said. “Let us be around people. Let us get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Matt Johnson and Jason Green of IMBIB Custom Brews on the third day of bars being allowed to reopen in Washoe County on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent)
Matt Johnson, IMBIB Custom Brews, Reno
In early April, when bars in Reno were forced to shut down all service, IMBIB Custom Brews co-founder Matt Johnson held a free beer giveaway for first responders. Since then, operating the brewery has been a rollercoaster for Johnson, who has had to quickly transition his business from closed, to curbside operations, to open, and back to curbside in order to comply with county regulations.
On Sept. 10, Johnson got the news that he would again be able to reopen IMBIB’s doors and continue serving the Northern Nevada community.
“It was a lot of excitement because we had been really fighting to advocate for our industry and try to show that we could do things safely,” Johnson said. “But certainly some anxiety because we transitioned back and forth so many times. Yeah, there’s a lot that goes into planning to reopen.”
Johnson, who is president of the Nevada Craft Brewers Association, is also concerned that actions taken by other breweries could affect IMBIB’s ability to stay open.
“We’re confident in our process and ability to follow the guidelines, but my concern is will other bars start to cut corners, make us, once again, look bad?” he said.
In addition to curbside services, the brewery was dependent on federal loans in order to stay afloat, receiving funding through the Paycheck Protection Program as well as an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Still, employees had to be furloughed and apply for unemployment during the six-month lag in business.
“Unfortunately, the hardest part is when you’ve had employees who’ve been furloughed for six months. Not all of them can — or want to — return.”
Pre-pandemic, the brewery had 10 employees. Four will return.
But, those who will return are returning to serve a community that is excited to have them back. Even during the county-mandated closures, Johnson said he would hear from customers confused about why they couldn’t stop by their favorite brewery.
“We even had people who would come to the business and try to come in the front door and then call and say ‘Why is your door locked?’” he said. “A couple times it was [anger], and I don’t know how or why they got to that point, but for the most part, people really understood.”
When IMBIB did open its doors again, it was met with crowds excited to come in and enjoy a beer, including many of the regulars.
“I don’t expect it to be crazy crowded and overwhelming,” Johnson said. “But I think there’s a lot of people who were glad they can get a beer again in a safe environment other than their houses or a restaurant.”
And to maintain that safe environment, IMBIB, like all other bars in the state, will require social distancing and the wearing of masks. Although Johnson expects some resistance on the mask rules, he’s not going to cut any corners.
“We have a zero tolerance policy at this point. We just can’t risk it,” he said. “We’ve tried to accommodate everybody and everything, but we’re at a point now where, with our livelihoods at risk, if I lose one customer because he refuses to wear a mask, I’m okay with that.”
Overall, Johnson said he appreciates the communication that’s been occurring between his business and the county and the opportunity this reopening provides to prove that breweries and bars can be run safely even in the midst of a pandemic.
“We’re just hopeful that they will enforce the rules with those bad actors in the industry without punishing all of us,” he said.
— Kristyn Leonard
Lauren Duarte, Stray Dog Pub and Cafe, Elko
Bar owners in Nevada’s third-most populous county are also itching to put barstools back out again after the hiatus.
Stray Dog Pub and Cafe manager Lauren Duarte said the business fared extremely well amid the shutdowns, despite the grave economic circumstances across the state. The owners of the downtown Elko pub were able to reopen with restrictions along with restaurants in early June, have added rather than lost employees, and also managed to make the most of the situation by taking a few weeks to remodel.
The hardest part for Duarte has been navigating the tumultuous changes in state guidelines, such as mask mandates, and ensuring her employees are up to speed on what’s expected of the business.
“I think all of our employees understand that if we want to stay in business right now, those are the requirements that have to be met,” she said. “And we’ve been really lucky that our customers have been really understanding of that as well.”
Duarte said she’s excited for the reopening of the bar Monday night, which she expects will be busier than a typical Monday night before the pandemic.
“I think it will be great,” she said. “We have found in the past that the more businesses that are open and operating in the downtown corridor, the more business that we have, so it always works out to be beneficial to us.”
— Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jacque Errecart, Duncan Littlecreek Gallery, Elko
Duncan Littlecreek Gallery, an art gallery and bar that does not have a restaurant license, has struggled throughout the shutdown.
The building has been in business owner Jacque Errecart’s family since 1959 — he remembers helping his father with the bar when he was as young as three years old, carrying two bottles of brandy or two six-packs of beer into the building.
Errecart and his partner and co-owner Joan Anderson, who are both also architects, made the difficult decision to shutter their doors amid the spread of COVID-19 early on, despite local businesses that ignored the state guidelines and a county sheriff who publicly stated he would not enforce Sisolak’s rules.
For Errecart, the decision was about being morally responsible for mitigating the spread in the community, especially for people with underlying health conditions. So, the couple filled their windows with art from the gallery and signs saying they missed their loyal customers and friends.
“We are tough, and we’re going to have to be,” he said, referring to enforcing mask and social distancing rules. “I’m no kid anymore and there’s multiple factors for being really careful about spreading it.”
The art gallery and bar took a significant financial hit during the shutdown, but Errecart is confident the business will be back to where they were previous to the pandemic within 30 days — assuming they won’t have to close again amid new surges in cases.
— Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Molly prepares beverages at Revision Brewing Company on the third day of bars being allowed to reopen in Washoe County on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent)
Jeremy Warren and Darla Roberts, Revision Brewing Company, Sparks
Revision Brewing Company in Sparks has experienced ups and downs since the pandemic hit, but one of the most challenging moments came when CEO and brewmaster Jeremy Warren stood on a picnic table and let his team know that layoffs and pay cuts were inevitable.
Darla Roberts, the vice president of marketing and public relations and a co-founder of Revision Brewing Company, said the image is seared into her brain.
“We were all doing our best to act strong, but we were choking back tears as he spoke to our incredible team, talking about the uncertainty that lay ahead, looking out at the sea of eyes of all of the people that truly make Revision wonderful,” Roberts said.
Stimulus checks and then unexpected PPP funding allowed the company to bring back most of its team. Still, the taproom situation was complicated by constantly changing directives from the county, Roberts said.
“Our staff feels the brunt of it as they had to apply for unemployment, which was a nightmare for them, get called back for a month, and then return back to being laid off and go through the process all over again,” Roberts said.
The reopening of casinos but not bars frustrated the brewery, which had to cut back production, destroy date-sensitive products and adjust to running curbside deliveries. The brewery also faced shortages of CO2, which gives the beer its bubbles, that in turn drove up costs, Warren said.
“Revision cut new production by 50 percent in the beginning. After bracing for impact we made revisions and shifted to over 90 percent of our product going into package versus keg,” Warren said.
While the brewery slowly climbed back to normal pre-COVID production levels thanks to other carriers, bar openings will help financially. Warren said the brewery is taking every precaution possible with a strict cleaning schedule, mask requirements, wellness screenings and other safeguards.
Going forward, Warren fears for his employees’ well-being, though.
“[I’m worried about] keeping up our team’s morale and mental state in an environment that is inevitably less collective due to safety precautions,” Warren said.
Roberts also worries about the potential for bars and breweries to be singled out for closure again.
“We were ecstatic to find out that we could reopen. However, there’s that awful gut feeling saying don’t get your hopes up on this being for any long duration,” Roberts said. “We’ve been here before.”
— Tabitha Mueller
Signage at IMBIB Custom Brews on the third day of bars being allowed to reopen in Washoe County on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent)
Wyndee Forrest, CraftHaus Brewery, Henderson and Las Vegas
Wyndee Forrest has been able to operate her two CraftHaus Brewery locations since the Phase 1 reopening in mid-May because of its license as a restaurant and not solely a bar or brewery.
While the new directive reopening bars Monday won’t affect too many details in her business operations, Forrest said it will eliminate some of the differences in how cities have been interpreting the governor’s directives. Until Monday, customers at the Henderson location have had to order food with beverages while customers at the Las Vegas location could order drinks alone.
The new directive may also alleviate any confusion customers may have with their operations.
“I assume that people in their minds think of us as a bar, so therefore maybe they haven’t come back to visit us,” Forrest said. “There’s a lot of coverage about bars reopening, so now I think it will just bring a lot of awareness that we are open even though we have been open for the last few months.”
Even though they’ve been open since May unlike many other alcohol-based establishments, Forrest said their financial footing has been shaken, and it’s been “exhausting” trying to figure out finances and support their workers.
“There’s always a new catastrophe that we have to bob and weave and figure our way out of,” she said. “Instead of being sad, we’re scrappy, and we figured out how to fight our way out. We’re still not in the clear, whatsoever.”
Forrest was able to retain all her workers after laying them off in March and give a small boost to their hourly wage as a thank you for sticking with the brewery during hard times.
But her businesses have been operating at 30 percent capacity with the implementation of social distancing guidelines, and expenses related to the pandemic, such as personal protective equipment for staff, have also meant substantially decreased revenue.
“So if you want to see your favorite bar or your favorite restaurant survive, go visit, go spend some money there,” she said. “Because we can put on the happy face, but we’re all up at night thinking how can we make this another week, another month.”
This article was updated on September 21, 2020 at 1:16 p.m. to reflect Darla Roberts’ title.