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Louisville Bars, Restaurants Ready For Return Of Indoor Service On Monday

Bars and restaurants in Kentucky will reopen for indoor service on Monday after nearly a month of limited operations.

In November, Gov. And Beshear ordered new restrictions on a number of spaces, including restaurants, bars, gyms, indoor recreation facilities, event spaces and theaters. Bars and restaurants were unable to serve patrons indoors during that time, instead they had to rely on outdoor seating, delivery and carryout.

Some of the hardest-hit establishments were those that present themselves as more than a bar. Play Louisville, for instance, is known more for its drag shows and dance floor than the items on its food menu. 

Play Louisville is a nightclub that generally stays open until 4 a.m., owner Micah McGowan said. And the restrictions and curfew have been difficult.

“We've honestly kind of had our whole identity stripped from us,” he said. “And even though we're allowed to operate under really strict restrictions, I mean, people are used to coming out to Play at the end of their night or as a later night experience. To have to try to rebrand ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, to say it’s been challenging would be an understatement. We've seen a decrease of 95% in our business since March.”

Since March, McGowan estimates that Play has been shut down for 26 weeks out of 40. Other establishments relied on outdoor seating and takeout options during the most recent restrictions.

But McGowan said those options weren’t viable at Play.

“We don't sell a product that you can take out,” he said. “We have a patio, but we don't really provide a patio type experience. So when the governor, this last go around, said this is not a shutdown, I mean, it was a shut down for us and for many businesses that don't have a patio, or don't offer takeout options.”

Antz Wettig, who co-owns Zanzabar with his brother Jon, said he considered shutting down like Play. 

“This most recent shutdown, we might as well just been shut down,” he said. “I mean, when you force a bar or restaurant to sit outside, we're not in Florida, we're not in California, where it's bearable. Like some nights in Louisville, it's in the 20s. No one's going to sit outside and drink a beer.”

But Wettig instead moved forward with a focus on delivery and takeout service, something the bar hadn’t done much of in the past. Zanzabar also faced a disadvantage, since it’s mostly known for its concerts.

Without live music, business has been tough. And the restrictions have made it even tougher. Now that indoor service can start up again, Wettig said, “what’s lost is lost. We’ve got to start over.”

“The best possible scenario for us right now, and I think a lot of restaurants that are in this, is to break even, which since March, I've only done twice,” Wettig said. “In September and October, we broke even. And those were the only two months we even got close to making up the difference. But we have not made a nickel in profit since the shutdown on March 16.”

McGowan also had doubts about the efficacy of the shutdown in slowing the spread of the virus. He said when bars and restaurants in Louisville are shut down, many people simply go across the bridge to Indiana. 

“People are going to go over there because there's no restrictions, and there's more COVID,” McGowan said. “Now, people are going to drive drunk back across the river. Secondly, other people are just going to have house parties and have gatherings. So the best option would be to require bars to follow [guidelines], make everyone wear a mask, make everyone be as safe as possible in the bar, and actually send out enforcement on those bars that aren't following the rules.”

Kentucky broke its record for daily COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the day Beshear announced the restrictions would be lifted. McGowan sees this as an indicator that Beshear may be more hesitant to enact another shutdown.

“I would honestly, at this point, kind of be surprised if we had another shutdown,” McGowan said. “Him allowing us to reopen on the same day that we have 4,300 cases… I think he recognizes that bars and restaurants aren't the only industry that's spreading this. I think that might finally be a realization there. But who knows, at this point, it's 2020. Everything's on the table.”

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.