Last Call? How local bars weathered the pandemic.

Shuttered for half a year, with some on the verge of permanent closure, local bars have worried and struggled, but ultimately weathered the pandemic

by Jared Misner (he/him)

Featured Photo Above: Bar Argon bartender Victor Genwright mixes a cocktail. Photo by Second Life Photography.

Welcome to the 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine! This article is part of the annual Charlotte Pride Magazine, published this year as a special year-end retrospective for 2020. You can see all 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine content here, as well as finding distribution locations for our limited print run.

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all bars and nightclubs closed on March 17 to minimize coronavirus infection risks, Kevin Cooper kept the beers in his bars’ coolers.

They’d reopen in a couple months, he thought. They’ll be there, nice and cold, when that time comes.

A “couple months” passed. Then whole seasons came and went. Still, Sidelines Sports Bar and Billiards and Bar Argon, the side-by-side pair of LGBTQ bars on South Boulevard he owns, remained closed through the governor’s executive orders.

“It was kind of a wait and see thing. Then the restaurants opened and the bars didn’t,” Cooper, who is not related to the governor, said. “And that’s when we got worried.”

Finally, on Oct. 2, after nearly seven months of lost income, the governor extended North Carolina’s re-opening plan to include bars and nightclubs. Finally, Cooper could pop open those well-chilled beers – but only to an outdoor-only crowd of 30 percent capacity.

Even with the limitations still hampering business, Cooper and the owners of other queer bars in Charlotte say they’re fortunate to reopen at all. Many Charlotte bars and restaurants, unable to pay the bills for half the year with reduced or no income, closed up shop instead.

The reopening seems to have come just in time for some.

In mid-September, after losing an estimated $150,000 in income, Tiffany Storm, owner of Chasers, had a decision to make: Would she spend her last remaining bit of savings, hoping Chasers would reopen soon or call it quits and cut her losses?

“Is it worth it to be totally broke and to hold onto something that you know you won’t eventually be able to?” asked Storm, who started waiting tables at Maria’s restaurant to stay financially afloat during the closure.

It was a difficult choice, but she decided to invest one more month’s worth of money in the beloved spot she’s owned for five years. After that, she’d have to lock the doors for good.

“I just dropped the phone and started crying,” Storm said.

Soon after, Storm got a call saying the Foundation for the Carolinas had awarded her a small grant to help keep Chasers open. It was the lifeline she needed.

“If I hadn’t saved some money over the years, it wouldn’t be there,” Storm said of Chasers. “But the money I have is gone.”

Aside from plowing through their savings, Storm, Cooper and other LGBTQ bar owners in Charlotte had to resort to fundraising or other innovative ways to make money.

Bar Argon and Sidelines hosted a virtual dance party with several local drag queens donating their time and performances. The event raised $10,000, and Cooper split the money between paying the staff at both bars and funding ongoing operating costs of the dual bars.

Chasers, like The Stonewall Inn in New York City, created a Gofundme crowdsourcing fundraising page to help keep the lights on.

It was demoralizing, Storm said, to ask her customers, who were also navigating murky financial waters, for money even though she could give nothing immediately in return.

“It gets to a point where it just feels like you’re begging,” Storm said.

But Charlotte’s queer community came together, raising nearly $4,000 for one of its own.

“I want to let them know the money they donated, the calls, the texts, they weren’t in vain,” Storm said. “I’m still here, holding on.”

Woodshed bartender Mike Miller, left, chats with customers who came for The Charlotte Tradesmen’s December bar night. Photo by Second Life Photography.

LGBTQ workers more likely to be negatively affected

While the pandemic has claimed, as of press time, over 290,000 American lives and cost untold number of jobs for everyone, the coronavirus and its effects walloped the nation’s LGBTQ community especially hard.

According to a Human Rights Campaign study released in March, the pandemic affected 40 percent of LGBTQ workers nationwide compared to 22 percent of non-LGBTQ workers. Additionally, according to a separate 2018 Human Rights Campaign survey, fewer than one in three LGBTQ workers has access to workplace health insurance. This, all during a pandemic that attacks the lungs when the asthma rate for LGBTQ people is already 50 percent higher than for non-LGBTQ people, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The pandemic, it seems, was a perfect storm for the LGBTQ community, laying bare the inequities in both health care and income.

Vic Genwright, a bartender at both The Woodshed and Bar Argon is just one local LGBTQ worker affected by the pandemic’s wrath.

Genwright had the misfortune of being laid off not only from one job – but both his bartending jobs as nightclubs across the state closed. To stay solvent, he took a part-time job at a warehouse.

It was an abrupt change for a bartender, Genwright said. He went from interacting with hundreds of people each shift to a handful.

“I think when everybody was going through the closure, everyone was going through the same pain. We all missed that camaraderie,” he said.

During the early days of the pandemic, Genwright, like 2.49 million other North Carolinians, according to the Associated Press, filed for unemployment.

“But that only lasted for so long,” he said. His employers were still closed.

Finally, a lifeline

Month after month, bar owners across North Carolina monitored the infection rates, hoping for good news.

“Each time we get some glimmer of hope, which is whenever the governor is going to make another announcement, we’ll plan for possibly being open next weekend,” Timothy Lee, The Woodshed owner, said.

He quickly learned those glimmers of hopes were fantasy — at least for a while.

“Then I realized, ‘We’re going to be the last group to open.’”

Lee, who had just bought The Woodshed in August 2019, says he doesn’t have an estimate of how much money he lost but that during the last four months of 2019, the bar — which has become a home for the city’s bear, leather, and other queer kink and fetish communities — brought in about $200,000.

And that doesn’t include most of the summer months, the bar’s busiest of the year.

Still, Lee says he’s more fortunate than some. He owns both the building and the land The Woodshed sits on. He didn’t have to worry about a landlord expecting rent each month.

“I don’t have any more money in my 401k, but right now, I’m fine to be closed,” Lee said. “I’m not making any money, but I’m not losing any money. Outside utilities and insurance, that’s all I’ve had to pay.”

That’s not to say Lee or others haven’t suffered during the closure. Others, like Cooper, owner of Bar Argon and Sidelines Bar, merely don’t like to think about it.

“I couldn’t even begin to estimate it,” Cooper said of the combined losses between his two bars. “We’ve lost over half a year of income. It’s a little too depressing to stop and think about it.”

Slowly, as the infection rates in North Carolina trended downward, Gov. Cooper announced bars could reopen on Oct. 2.

The queer community, having been denied many of their safe spaces for the majority of the year, rejoiced.

“We were very happy to finally open,” Cooper said.

With the governor’s executive order allowing bars to reopen at 30 percent capacity and only outside, some bar owners had to be creative.

Sidelines Bar has only a small patio, Cooper said, so to adhere to the governor’s order, the bar brought tables outside and fenced them in, “café-style.”

“It maybe wasn’t the perfect solution, but people liked it,” Cooper said.

Chasers, with its small patio, also dealt with its own capacity issues. “Once I get to 30 percent, I’m gonna have to tell them to come back later,” Storm said.

She paused. “But 30 is better than zero.”

[Editor’s Note: At press time, Gov. Cooper had futher restricted, though not completely closed bars or restaurants. Previous restrictions closing bars at 11 p.m. were shortened to 10 p.m., though on-site alcohol sales must end at 9 p.m. The current restrictions will last through Jan. 8, 2021.]

Chasers’ halls — and stage — are decked for the holidays, but customers are limited to the club’s small outdoor patio. Photo by Second Life Photography.

A special place

Aside from the obvious detrimental and inequitable effects on health and income, the LGBTQ community also experienced a loss different than other communities during the pandemic: a loss of many of its safe spaces.

The pandemic lockdown comes on top of years’ worth of worry over queer bars’ closures and their dwindling numbers across the country.

An increasingly affirming society with more inclusive and safe spaces in traditionally mainstream bars and nightclubs has resulted in economic challenges for many LGBTQ bars, and so their numbers have steadily drifted downward.

In Charlotte alone, the community has lost several queer bars over the past decade, most notably Hartigan’s, the Irish-themed pub doubling as the city’s only lesbian and queer women’s bar, which closed in 2014.

The recent history of challenges for queer bars — and the closure of several bars across the country as a direct result of pandemic lockdowns — exacerbated fears that fewer would be left open once the pandemic has subsided.

Making matters more dire, few LGBTQ bars across the state and country serve food and are, as such, primarily licensed as restaurants, meaning they couldn’t take advantage of some of the more lenient reopening guidelines for dining establishments. Chasers, the only exception to that rule in Charlotte, is classified by the state as primarily a nightclub and, therefore, wasn’t permitted to open.

Without its bars open, queer people nationwide and throughout Charlotte were left without a space to commune.

“These places, they’re safe havens, the places people go to feel themselves there,” Storm said. “They’re more than bars; they’re a part of our community.”

‘Community’ was a word the bar owners threw around a lot when discussing their closures.

“As far as the gay bars in Charlotte, we’re pretty much aligned, and we’re looking out for each other and want each other to be okay,” Lee, The Woodshed owner, said.

Storm reiterated that sentiment.

“A lot of people think the bar owners are at each other’s throats here,” she said. “But I’ve had all the other bar owners calling me and donating money.”

She stopped, thought for a moment about the community that’s supported each other during the past half year and then continued.

“We’ve all embraced each other,” she said. “So I think it’s going to be better for the clubs because we understand we’ve all been through something.”

Misner is a writer in Charlotte. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Charlotte magazine, and the Chronicle of Higher Education among others.