by Kevin Williams
Gay bars have been important in LGBTQ+ history, even as many still debate their place in modern society. Historically, gay bars have been our few “safe spaces”: Havens where we could go to avoid being gay-bashed. Places where we could meet each other. spaces we were free to be ourselves, away from prying, disapproving eyes – even if just for a night. Rooms where we could dance with abandon, look the way we wanted, be with who we wanted – all with the peace that comes with knowing that no one in the room wanted to kill you or deny your civil rights because of your sexual orientation or gender identity.
Although the United States has come a long way in the fight for gay rights, equality has not been achieved. Aside from a few neighborhoods in some of the larger Ohio–Highland Square in Akron, or the Short North in Columbus–the rest of the state is simply not as accepting. For example, aside from a handful of municipalities and counties, it’s still very much legal to discriminate against sexuality in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Ohio has come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Clearly we still need these sanctuary spaces. COVID-19, however, has put many of these spaces at risk.
The State of Ohio’s unemployment rate hit a record high of more than 17% in April, with the service industry bearing the brunt of the losses as bars and indoor dining have been shut down or running at limited capacity since March 15. The number of “Leisure and Hospitality” jobs in Ohio were cut in half from March to April, and they have not rebounded to their pre-COVID-19 levels.
Even as some of the restrictions have eased up and the community can more freely gather, it still takes money to run a bar. Many spaces—gay and other—have either not opened back up or have closed permanently.
“We have had to cut shifts,” says Brian Lyons, owner of Cocktails Akron and Cleveland. “Of the staff that came back, they are making less.”
Social distancing occupancy limits coupled with a mask mandate and a 10 PM last call have done their part in reducing infection rates. In the weeks since the mask mandate, Ohio’s infection rates have fallen around 30%.
Yet those same restrictions also mean that gay bars can’t be full of patrons. A 10 PM last call cuts several hours out of operating time: both with regard to patron’s socializing and, for bar owners, hours of profit. Bars have had to modify, and modify quickly.
“We thought the biggest challenge would be getting our customers to follow the new guidelines issued by the state. However, that has not been the case. We have had success from day one with everyone doing their best to follow these rules. I think the strangest part of the new rules is the table service that we now provide. It has been a learning curve for the staff, but they are making the best of it and have been so good at the constant adaptations that we keep getting.” said Matthew Mefferd, of Columbus area bar, AWOL.
Businesses have been adapting to the new regulations as best as they can, but exposure to COVID-19 has still been a risk. Many bars have reported forgetful or sometimes apprehensive patrons not wearing masks. In recent months, Columbus area gay bars AWOL and Daddy’s both had bar staff test positive for COVID-19, prompting temporary shutdowns and deep cleans of both of those spaces.
Although bars are trying to adapt to the new regulations, the loss of business due to COVID-19 has been significant. Cocktails estimates that their business is down at least 40 to 50%.
“Customers are tipping heavy. I have mostly a regular customer base which also helps. But many older guys have yet to return,” said Lyons.
Cocktails Cleveland and Akron are adamant that they are not as bad off despite the lack of business as they own the buildings in which their bars are housed. Other spaces have to pay rent.
In Columbus, Scotty Niemet, had opened Daddy’s, a brand new gay bar, a mere 30 days before the stay-at-home order closed all bars. Since then, remaining open has been a rocky road for Niemet. Recently, his bar has pivoted to delivery of custom cocktails, branded merchandise, and some other alcohol sales to stay operating. His customers have stepped up their purchases to help the business stay afloat.
“We still have a lot of patrons that are not yet ready to go to a bar. But they still wanted to support us,” said Niemet.
On April 1, the state of Ohio did extend a rent moratorium for commercial businesses, but that assistance only provided 90-day relief and has since expired. Other COVID-19 relief loans have helped some businesses, but that money can only be stretched so far. Or, as in Niemet’s case, many bars simply did not qualify for the loans to begin with due to being a new business.
Still despite it all, many bar owners have remained optimistic.
“We are going to let this be a blip in the history books,” says Mefferd. “We want to be there for the happy times after, and we will be.”
- Support local businesses as much as you are able.
- Wear a mask.
Kevin Williams is a gay writer and journalist, Ohio State Alumni, and originally from Akron. Now Columbus based, he writes and reports on structural inequality, especially concerning BIPOC. Follow him on Twitter at @GaytonaUSA.