Moneybox

Prohibition Summer

A Florida “speakeasy” on being shut down because of the pandemic, reopening, and being shut down again.

A bottle of hand sanitizer is seen between a cocktail and a beer tab.
The two kinds of alcohol you need in a pandemic. Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

On Friday, for the second time since the pandemic hit the U.S., Florida ordered bars to shut down after the state nearly doubled its single-day record for new infections. Officials claim that the spike is largely due to young people frequenting drinking establishments. Texas and California have also imposed a second shutdown of bars in recent days.

Florida thought it was past this. The state instituted its first lockdown order, which included bars, at the beginning of April—and for a while, Florida appeared to have avoided the worst despite its relatively lax efforts to contain the coronavirus. In the first week of June, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state would move into phase two of its reopening plan, allowing bars to serve drinks on their premises. “Go enjoy. Have a drink. It’s fine,” DeSantis said at the time. A few weeks later, here we are.

What’s it like to shut down, reopen, and then shut down again? To get a sense of what the pandemic and Florida’s response have meant for the nightlife business, I spoke to Hana Ferguson, the marketing director for the Volstead bar in Jacksonville, Florida. Despite being named after the Prohibition-era Volstead Act and styled like a speakeasy, the bar is very much closed—and like many establishments in Florida, now faces an even more uncertain future.

Aaron Mak: What was it like to close the bar when Florida instituted its first lockdown order in April?

Hana Ferguson: It was pretty tough for us, being in downtown Jacksonville. A lot of our business is lawyers and city officials and other business owners. We really rely on those types of guests to come in to our bar. With the shutdown and everyone being mandated to work from home, it really put us in quite a predicament, as far as not being able to serve alcohol inside the bar and trying to find creative ways to keep the bar going during the shutdown. So we had to switch over to to-go cocktails and, under our packaging license, be treated as a liquor store. It helped us get through the first go-around, but just barely.

How did you prepare for reopening?

They announced on June 5 that we could open soon, which was only a few days’ notice. It wasn’t really a lot of time for us to go through and clean the bar and stock all the inventory we had lost—whether it was just by trying to sell it or because a lot of our produce rotted. So we needed to clean the bars, stock the bar, bring up our inventory, and create a new menu. We call it our COVID menu—just a smaller menu offering specific classics and then some cocktails that bartenders had made up.

Even with that reopening, we were only really open for two weeks before we decided to voluntarily shut down for a mandatory employee testing and then another cleaning. And then the day we were wanting to reopen after all the testing had cleared is when [Florida] announced that we had to close down again.

Why did you decide to voluntarily shut down two weeks after reopening?

We noticed a lot of the bars in Jacksonville were announcing that their employees were testing positive or a customer had tested positive. We didn’t want to take that risk. We thought that it was probably smart to just go ahead and make sure everyone was tested and cleared. Also while we were closed, we just did another thorough clean for the bar, because we didn’t want that to happen to us.

We voluntarily shut down for five days, and then we were planning to reopen this past Friday. But that’s when Florida announced via tweet that we had to shut down again. So this is our third time.

During that brief window while you were open, what sorts of precautions were you taking?

We of course regulated the number of people that came in, but we had never reached a point to where it was outrageously packed inside the bar. Being a speakeasy, we tend to have a more calm, relaxing atmosphere. Our bartenders wore masks the whole time they were working. We had little hand sanitizers spread out through the entire bar for our guests to use when they came in. All of our seating was spread out and scattered. We also continuously cleaned the countertops and all of our tables throughout the evening while we were open.

What was everyone’s reaction to the new order to close everything down again?

It was honestly really frustrating. We were kind of going back-and-forth. Do we close? What do we do? Because we had only seen it in a tweet. We hadn’t seen an official executive order yet. The second shutdown is only being targeted toward bars. It’s not bars and restaurants. It’s not any other social gathering place. We’re kind of seen as just the odd ones out in this whole scenario.

What was challenging about closing again?

We still have to pay utilities and still have to pay rent, just everything to keep the bar running as if nothing happened. We’re essentially just losing money every single day that we are closed. During the first shutdown we did receive the PPP loan, but that only can keep us going for so long. And now we’re just back to where we started with losing inventory and revenue.

A lot of our cocktails that we make, especially our signature cocktails, are all either pre-batched or require fresh ingredients. All of the fruits, all of the herbs—we had stocked up on everything as we ramped back up to be open again. We had just purchased everything brand-new. We’re losing all of that. It’s a lot of work we’re just losing.

What happens now?

We’re trying to figure out different strategies right now as far as how to keep the bar going, but I’m not sure we can keep going like this for much longer. We’re doing to-go cocktails. The other thing is we’re trying to partner with local food vendors as another incentive to encourage people to support local businesses: Grab your food to go and grab a drink to go. Make it a full meal.

Was it worse to close the first time or the second time?

Oh man. I feel like both times were just as tough. I think with the first shutdown, they waited too long to shut everything down and then opened up too soon. And then they reopened and shut us down a second time but didn’t really give us any time to prepare. If we knew that we were going to be forced to shut down again, maybe that would have stopped us from placing all of these orders and spending all this money on things that we knew would go bad.