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Everything That Makes Dive Bars Great Makes Them Vulnerable to COVID-19

Drinkers love dark, rowdy, cheap, cash-only dives, but those bars struggle with safety measures like social distancing and takeout

Patrons crowd a bar under red and blue lights as draq queen Miss Lisa Lisa dances in a black dress and collects dollars from the crowd.
Lisa Thompson performs during a drag show at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge
Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

“Bob & Barbara’s Lounge is a tradition in Philadelphia,” says owner Jack Prince. He has run the bar with his wife Gretchen for the last quarter-century, but it originally opened in 1969 and still bears the wood paneling, pendant lights over the bar, and distinctive acrylic windows to prove it. “When people come from out of town, it’s one of the places people take them to see. They’ll take them to Pat’s and Geno’s to see the cheesesteak wars. They’ll drive ‘em by the Liberty Bell. And they’ll take ‘em to Bob & Barbara’s for a special.”

The special, popularized around Philly as a “citywide special,” consists of a shot of Jim Beam bourbon and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon for $4. It’s one of the things that makes Bob & Barbara’s so beloved, along with the “liquor drinkin’ music” that fills the bar on weekends and the famed weekly drag show.

As states and cities reopen bars following the COVID-19 pandemic, lively, low-cost venues like Bob & Barbara’s may struggle to meet strict social distancing requirements or serve patrons in other ways, like with takeout cocktails. “There are a lot of places in Philly and I’m sure in many other cities, where it’s small and beloved, and it really only works when there are a bunch of people there. I don’t know if all of a sudden we’re knocked off the face of the earth — or if we just have to make adjustments,” Prince says. He doubts whether Bob & Barbara’s will be able to host their usual activities for a while to come, though he’s committed to keeping the drag show going above all else.

Dives are cherished for their dark interiors, raucous atmospheres, and egalitarian walk-in only service, all aspects that make it hard for dives to accommodate social distancing. The bars are known for simple menus, cheap drinks, and even their grimy atmospheres, which help them thrive during traditional economic downturns but lower their appeal for anyone afraid of germs during a pandemic. “My god, we don’t even take credit cards, and now everyone is like, ‘Cash is poison,’” Prince says.

Some bar owners are making creative pivots to find business. “Bars that are solely bars, with no restaurant attached, have to come up with ideas to make stuff work,” says Susan Carnel, who has owned the Living Room in Los Angeles since 2017. She has been working with a soul food restaurant next door, Chef Marilyn’s, to collaborate on an outdoor eating and drinking area.

Carnel recognizes how lucky she is to have a willing neighbor and a parking lot where they can set up, but even with a way to do business, she’s not sure customers will show. “I anticipate problems because I cater to an older crowd,” she says, clarifying, “older black people. And they’re saying the virus is attacking black people more than anybody else. These guys are really leery. They’re like, ‘I don’t know Susan. If you open back up, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make it.’” In the evenings, the Living Room serves a different crowd. “Due to gentrification, the crowd is multicultural, which I like. Everyone gets along. It’s like Cheers if you ask me,” she says. But she remains committed to her daytime regulars. “I’m just trying to cater to them because they really keep the club open. Those are the ones who come to spend money. Those are the ones I have history with.”

Carnel is also concerned about her staff. “I asked one of my bartenders, ‘If we open up in July, are you coming back?’ And he says he doesn’t know. And I get it. I would have a problem with that too, especially if there’s no cure for the virus.”

Mark Connell, who has owned Botanica in New York for 15 years, says his staff are actually antsy to get back to work, but he still has to find a way to pay them. “No bartender is going to go back to work to make a couple drinks to-go when they can make $1,100 on unemployment,” he says. The bar has been mostly closed since March 16, even as nearby restaurants find ways to pivot. Fine-dining restaurant Estela, directly upstairs from Botanica, has been selling expensive dinner boxes and even a puzzle depicting their famous mussels escabeche.

Armed with a forgivable PPP loan and an interest-free loan from the New York Small Business Service, Connell brought back some staff in May to try offering to-go drinks, along with bags of chips to get around a city rule that requires food to accompany takeout alcohol. They saw 7 percent of usual sales, and only kept at it in order to use up the time-sensitive PPP loan.

“The only people who would order a beer from us, or a cocktail from us, are people who are going to be scofflaws and wandering around the streets drinking alcohol, or people who just want to be generous and just want to help us stay in business,” he says. Since the time limit on the PPP loan was extended, though, Connell says Botanica will probably remain shut until they can seat guests inside or nab one of the contested parking spots out front for al fresco seating.

Connell recognizes that Botanica caters to a young crowd, who can’t spend much money but are happy to risk infection for a drink with friends. He says his bartenders “just don’t care” about getting infected either. Still, he’s wary of customers who flout the rules and will leave his business open to conflict with city authorities. “Someone will drop a dime,” he says. “Someone will call 311. And then we get a visit from the health department.” While he is clear he would never condone his customers breaking social distancing, he’s still concerned about how the city will regulate places like Botanica where young, carefree folks tend to gather.

In many cities, the pandemic has intensified pre-existing economic trends which squeeze owners who are committed to providing affordable service. The price of the special at Bob & Barbara’s has crept up over the last few years from $3 to $3.50 to $4, and Prince is unsure how he’ll price it when the business reopens.

“We sell beers for $3 because I still believe if you have 20 bucks in your pocket you should be able to go out and have a few drinks with your friends in New York City,” Connell says of Botanica, but he adds, “I have to sell a lot of $3 PBRs to hit rent.” While he says he’s lucky to have a generous landlord who values a stable tenant, he recognizes that generosity can only stretch so far. At some point financial reality may overcome loyalty.

Dive bars have long been an endangered species in many cities. Some owners have found success by reinventing dives with updated menus and cleaned-up interiors. In Portland, Oregon, for example, Marcus Archambeault and Warren Boothby have been able to preserve a handful of historic bars, including the Sandy Hut, originally established in 1923. The duo purchased the bar seven years ago, committing to maintaining the bar’s historic character while offering patrons craft cocktails and something more to eat than chicken tenders. They also made a key decision a year ago to buy the building, removing rent from the laundry list of concerns during the pandemic, at least for one bar.

“There’s been so much transformation in that neighborhood over the last 10 years,” Archambeault says. “There’s always this fear, particularly with the Sandy Hut, that the place is going to disappear. A lot of people have this idea that it’s going to go away or going to be sold, but we’re planning to be there, continuing on the business as is.”

Connell too has worked to update Botanica without losing its heart. Last year, New York granted Botanica a Love Your Local grant for $90,000, which Connell attributes to the city’s recognition “that landlords and vacant storefronts and Starbucks and CVS are sucking the soul out of the city.” He put the money toward updating the bar, keeping it accessible to his regulars but also making it more attractive to the expensive cocktail-drinking crowd. “We offer Yamazaki for $15 a pop because if you want to spend money, we need that money. We can’t survive on $3 Pabst,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic may only accelerate that trend. “We’re slowly changing things and trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just trying to clean the place up. Which stands us in good stead for the next phase of this whole thing. Because no one is going to want to sit in a…” Connell trails off, but it’s easy for a pessimist to fill in the end of that sentence. No one is going to want to sit in a dirty dive bar.

But Connell doesn’t seem pessimistic about the future of dives. “The people who go to the cocktail bars and spend $16 to $20, do those people really have loyalty to a brand or a bar? I don’t think so. And those are the people who are all now in the Hamptons or Aspen or wherever their second or third homes are,” he says. “There are still some regular people and they’re not going to the places with the $16 to $20 cocktails. They just want to go out and socialize in cheap places. I think we’re going to be alright.”

Prince sums it up succinctly, “If this is the end, wow that sucks. But hopefully we will live on.”