The Slatest

“We’re Just Doing Our Job, You Know?”

What it’s like to be a bartender amid the COVID surge.

A bartender wearing a black mask and a backpack cleans the bar with disinfectant spray, while a bartender in the back mixes a drink.
A bartender cleans the bar at a New Orleans restaurant in 2020. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

As states across the country take different steps (or none at all) to address the astronomical rise in COVID cases wrought by the Delta variant and too-low vaccination rates, bars and restaurants are facing yet another round of unknown territory. Restrictions vary from vaccination requirements in New York City to absolutely nothing at all in Miami. Now bartenders find themselves on the frontlines against an entire alphabet of contagious variants—often without clear guidelines from the state.

“There’s not really that many restrictions on customers [here], and the restrictions on employees are set in place by the individual restaurants,” said Ryan McCann, a bartender working in Boothbay, Maine, for the second summer in a row. Where he works, masks are required of employees who haven’t been vaccinated, for example. But without any statewide mandate requiring it, the same rules don’t really apply to customers. Maine currently has the third-highestvaccination rate in the country and an average of only 105 cases per day, which makes new restrictions less urgent than in places like Miami, where prominent bartender Daniele Dalla Pola co-owns Esotico. In the past week, Florida has broken both hospitalization and case records, and Miami-Dade County has the highest cases per capita in the state.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“I can’t force people to wear a mask now because … nobody [brings] a mask when they come into the restaurant,” Dalla Pola said. Instead, he’s had to pursue some creative avenues to ensure his employees stay safe while the state boasts zero restrictions and massive case rates. “We asked all our employee to get vaccinated. We offered money [as an incentive] to get the vaccination,” he said. And if they don’t? “ [T]hey wear a mask.”

As the U.S. pushes toward reopening, bartenders have also been their bars’ first line of defense against increasingly erratic (and even violent) customers. “People are less nice and less patient. They’ve been cooped up for a year, and they came out guns blazing,” said Marcia Herold, who has been bartending in New York’s posh Tribeca neighborhood for more than a decade. “But it’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re coming out with the respect of restaurant workers for doing this.’ It’s more like, ‘I’ve been cooped up for a year now give me everything I want.’ ”

Advertisement

New York City has become the first in the U.S. to require proof of vaccination in order for people to access indoor areas like bars, restaurants, and gyms. Bartender Jules Miranda worries that, paired with peoples’ increasing restlessness, the ordinance could cause problems for service workers. “I want everyone to be vaccinated, but if I have a guest come up to the door, and they’re trying to get in, I do foresee a few people throwing a fit to restaurant workers,” she said. “And that’s the part where it’s a bit unfair because like, we’re just doing our job, you know? Don’t take it out on the messenger.”

Advertisement

Even nice customers can be a problem. “You can have some great people out there, and they just forget and they get sloppy with us. They want to hug you, they want to touch you,” said Zach Hunt, a bartender from New Orleans. “And especially when you work in a place that’s [like] Cheers ‘where everybody knows your name,’ they want to hug you and you’re still just kind of like, ‘I want to fist bump you.’ ”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Amid the added difficulties of the job, however, many bartenders working in bars and restaurants during the pandemic find themselves with no other choice.

“I just needed some money to keep myself alive,” said Ojhonte Armstrong. A bit newer to the bar scene, Armstrong started working as a bar back in a Boston restaurant bar about five months ago. “Being a college student, I was surrounded by alcoholic beverages so … I guess this barbacking job is also kind of helping me further my knowledge on alcohol,” he said.

In Massachusetts, despite a recent and widely publicized outbreak in Provincetown, COVID case rates have remained low and over 60 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. There, indoor spaces have been able to stay open with less risk. “It’s definitely been more normal. … Like one week maybe after the Fourth of July, people were like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so happy!’ And the bartenders are like, ‘This is the life,’ ” Armstrong said about Boston’s reopening. “We’re coming back and they’re actually making more money now.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

In New Orleans, where COVID hospitalization rates are at the highest they’ve ever been and ambulances are struggling to keep up with increasing 911 calls, the pandemic’s effect on the service industry forced long-time bartender Zach Hunt to take a “pause” from his eight-year stint working at a locals’ LGBTQ bar in the city in order to stay afloat. When the pandemic hit, the bar was just coming out of a change in ownership, a reopening, and a booming Mardi Gras season. Then came the lockdowns and the sanctions. “It essentially just killed the momentum going into it,” Hunt said. “When we were able to reopen, there was no business.”

Hunt was working full time at the bar until the lack of customers meant that staying there was simply not an option—despite generous over-tipping and free meals from the bar’s loyal customers. When a dispute with the bar’s landlord meant that the bar had to close temporarily for a second time, Hunt decided to take up a full-time job contact tracing. He simultaneously picked up a full-time job bartending at a restaurant, but had to let go of that one as well. “The money wasn’t there. … Also, you feel kind of like a dick because at this point in time there are a lot of bartenders that are unemployed,” he said. “So, I stepped back and just said, ‘You have other people on the schedule that need to work full time, and I don’t need to.’ ”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Despite the obvious setbacks, though, bars and restaurants appear ready to roll with the punches. “We started putting back the mask [requirement]. If we need to get back towards social distancing, we’re going to [reduce capacity]. But I’m not going to stop the business because we have a family to take care of, we’ve got rent we have to pay,” said Dalla Pola, citing new restrictions that could come from the dire COVID situation in Miami.

And for the states that are doing a bit better with the pandemic, like New York? Herold put it this way: “I think what happened the first time is what’s going to happen again. New York will take the most proactive steps in terms of squashing [the pandemic] that the rest of the country will eventually ignore, even though we showed them how to do it.”

Advertisement