Most bars remain closed after two months; a few have reopened with a new license

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 08, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: September 08, 2020 4:00 AM CT

It’s been two months since Nick Scott had to lock the door at Alchemy, his Cooper-Young restaurant and bar.

It was when Jeannette Comans closed the Blind Bear, her place Downtown, when Mike Nash closed Tavern 018 in Cordova, when Tami Montgomery closed Dru’s Place on Madison.

They were shut down by a Shelby County Health Department directive to address the coronavirus epidemic.

One has reopened and one will reopen this week, but the other two don’t think the lifeline they were thrown by the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) will help them.

“We’re good to sit for a little bit,” Scott said. “I don’t want to for much longer, but I can’t flip-flop on my employees again. I can’t open then have to close again.”

Limited-service restaurants, or bars, derive 50% or more of their revenue from alcohol sales. At 50.1%, a restaurant is classified full service, and in the days of COVID-19, the word that precedes “service” has made the difference between staying open and shutting the doors. 

While the rule has been that restaurants that sell alcohol apply for a license with the TABC annually, last month a provision was made for monthly review.

In Shelby County, 42 limited-service restaurants closed July 8. Two lawsuits were filed in federal court, but the owners in both cases lost in their bids to reopen.

“All this is doing is hurting the smallest of small businesses,” Montgomery said.

Other businesses such as theaters, museums, and even some sporting event venues that had been closed have reopened with restrictions, but limited-service restaurants have seen little relief and restaurants in general operate under tight regulations.

Food sales are such a small part of Montgomery’s business that she doesn’t think it’s possible to take advantage of TABC’s new policy and stay within the rules.

“The only way I would do it is if I could do it legitimately, and to do that I’d have to buy a food truck to park outside or find some other way, and it would be some expensive way, to have more food,” she said. “We’re not a bar-slash-restaurant. We’re a bar.”

And that was what the Health Department wanted to do, with direction from the national Centers for Disease Control: Close bars.

“You have the epidemiological triangle,” said Alisa Haushalter, Health Department director.

The triangle is the agent, which is the coronavirus; the host, or the person the agent infects; and the environment, in this case a bar where certain behaviors can increase transmission, she said.

“At a bar people aren’t wearing a mask, because you can’t wear a mask when you eat or drink, and the behavior of people at a bar is that they tend to talk to each other, to people outside their own unit, and alcohol reduces inhibitions,” Haushalter said.

So restaurants have been hit with a double whammy: They are social places by nature, and people are mostly unmasked when there. They’re further jinxed by being a place where people linger, and that has been addressed in a health directive that restricts diners to two hours.

Haushalter explained that the length of time spent in one place can help spread COVID and shared a personal habit.

“We all need to stay focused on the things that will make a difference like wearing our masks, staying in small groups and how long to stay in one place.

“I use myself as an example,” she said. “I wouldn’t go visit my grandchildren then go visit my mother and regardless, when I visit my mother, I stay less than an hour and of course, I wear a mask.”

A few weeks after closing the limited-service restaurants, the Health Department also closed bars inside restaurants, prohibiting the consumption of food at the bar because of proximity, even with distancing.

Tabatha Blackwell, TABC assistant director, said limited-service restaurants in Shelby and Davidson counties, two of the six counties in the state that have a health department able to call most of the shots instead of adhering to state rules, seem to have struggled the most.

 

“We had some limited-service restaurants in Davidson County reach out to us,” she said. “They said, ‘We have to change our model and we really think we can qualify for full service. What can we do?’”

The decision was made to allow limited-service restaurants to apply for a full-service license with the caveat that they report their sales every month; if they don’t meet the numbers, they’ll have to change their license back.

Comans did it. She reopened Blind Bear Aug. 26 and made changes that have thus far kept her food sales above liquor sales.

“I check it just about every day and I’m at 56%,” she said. “I lowered my liquor prices by $2 a drink. My wine is ridiculously cheap. As soon as I can get my new menu together, we’ll have an actual breakfast menu instead of brunch. We’re changing the lunch menu and the dinner menu to include things like a ribeye and shrimp, class it up a little. I’m excited.”

But at Alchemy, Scott thinks changing too much would hurt him in the long run.

“Sure, I could buy cheaper liquor, but that’s not what we are. We’re not using well liquor, it’s better stuff. If we were to reopen and serve cheap liquor, it would negate our concept,” he said.

He doesn’t want to police his customers to make sure they order enough food. And Scott, who in July announced that he wasn’t going to close even after the Health Department’s order but relented, still believes the rules are arbitrary.

“I don’t think it’s right that we’d have to dictate what our customers order and full-service restaurants don’t,” he said. “They can go to a full-service restaurant and order five bottles of wine and an order of fries.”

Blackwell, at TABC, is sympathetic.

“The restaurant and bars have been in a very difficult situation. Right now, this is the best we can do. We just wanted to give the limited-service restaurants an opportunity to be open. We know there are extra hoops they have to go through,” she said.

Scott, Nash, Comans and Montgomery all know of places that remained open because they have a full-service license, even though they sell more alcohol than food. They hear about places that are serving alcohol after 10 p.m., which is when restaurants have to stop serving and close. They hear about places that aren’t abiding by social distancing or masking rules, and it makes them angry — though not so much at the restaurateurs breaking the rules.

“I know the position I’m in and don’t want anyone else to be in that position,” Montgomery said. “My problem is with the city, the county and the Health Department.

“Having us closed makes it look like they’re doing something when in effect they’ve just shut down a handful of places. They use us to look like they’re making a difference, but having us closed isn’t doing anything.”

Overton Square is bustling on weekend nights — no places there were ordered to close — and Beale Street bars and restaurants are open. They have full-service licenses because of a law that allows all restaurants or bars in a historic district to have such a license, regardless of food sales.

All restaurants have restrictions, though. No bar seating is allowed; they must close dining rooms at 10 p.m. and have all customers out by 10:30 p.m. Social distancing of 6 feet between tables is required, guests can’t stay at a table more than two hours, diners must wear masks except when seated at their tables, and restaurateurs must maintain a list of guests and their phone numbers. The limited-service restaurants that change their license and reopen must follow the same rules.

And the Health Department can check on any restaurant, whether for random COVID compliance or to address a complaint about a violation.

“There is a perception that we don’t inspect at night or weekends,” Haushalter said. “That is not accurate. We are available to go out when we’re needed and we will.”

She stressed that the first goal of the department is education, but noted that the Health Department has the authority to close a business out of compliance if lesser action doesn’t meet with success.

Getting some diners to give their names was problematic for restaurants at first, but now most people comply, something that became easier as people became accustomed to being asked. It’s for contact tracing, to be used by the Health Department, not the restaurant, if needed.

“By law, only the Health Department has the responsibility for the contact tracing investigation,” Haushalter said. “We partner with others to help with communication. For example, if an employee tests positive, we’ll work with the manager to see who they’ve been exposed to. We might work with them on what to do. If it’s guests, we’ll contact them.”

Mike Nash has applied for a full-service license and hopes to reopen Tavern 018 in Cordova this week. 

“I’ll do what I’m supposed to,” he said. “I’ll take names and numbers and I can just hope that the numbers they give me are right.”

Nash, who held a full-service license until this year, isn’t worried about his food-to-alcohol ratio.

“Closing at 10 p.m., I would always have had more food than alcohol,” he said. “I could’ve been doing this all along, because it’s after 10 p.m. when I have more alcohol sales.”

He offers a plate lunch during the week and has a large menu of wings, nachos, burgers, sandwiches, chips and dip and so on.

“I hate to say ‘bar food’ because that sounds like a bad thing right now,” he said. “But I do a good food business.”

He’s done takeout, but he’s ready to get his dining room reopened and hopes that if restaurants are further affected by COVID-19, restaurateurs will get to meet with Health Department officials.

“That some places are basically operating as business as usual and we’re closed is absolutely unfair,” he said. “The whole thing was not very well thought out. In the future, they should call in some people from all different kinds of restaurants and ask their opinion, see if we can apply some common-sense restrictions if we have to have them. They don’t have to take them, but they should listen.”

As it stands today, there will be no loosening of restrictions for the next 10 to 14 days or so, Haushalter said. That’s to see if there’s a spike in the number of coronavirus cases from Labor Day and from kids being back in school. While she has gone on record discouraging school sports, the Health Department doesn’t have the authority to interfere with local government on school sports or church attendance.

“It seems impossible to me that numbers are going to go down with everything except us opening back up,” Scott said. “And if they don’t, we stay closed.”

Comans is forging ahead, tweaking her plan as necessary to make sure her food sales stay up.

“I’ll file a food affidavit every month and as far as I can tell, it’s based on my honesty,” she said. “Can they come in and make sure? Yes. Obviously they (TABC) can come audit me, but I’m following every rule and they are welcome to.”

Montgomery, who says it costs her $9,000 per month to keep the restaurant closed, doesn’t think the end is coming soon.

“I think that basically what is shut down at this point will stay shut down,” she said. “I’ll be shocked if we’re allowed to reopen before the first of the year.

“But if they did allow us to reopen, I can’t see how it would raise the numbers.”

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Topics

Restaurants and COVID-19 Alisa Haushalter Nick Scott Alchemy Jeannette Comans Mike Nash Tami Montgomery Dru's Place Tavern 018 Blind Bear
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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