Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Wilmington-area bar owners wrangle with Governor Cooper’s new Phase 3 guidelines

Andrew Brothers is trying to re-open Red Dogs as the town of Wrightsville Beach opposes its permit application with the ABC Commission. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Andrew Brothers at Red Dogs in Wrightsville Beach in early 2019. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — After seven months of having two businesses closed due to COVID-19, and operating at an 80% revenue loss, Andrew Brothers opened one of his bars, The Dubliner, on Carolina Beach Road, at 5 p.m. yesterday under Governor Cooper’s executive order, 0169. Phase 3 allows bars, with outdoor spaces only, to open at 30% capacity or up to 100 patrons—whichever is less. 

“Across the country, COVID-19 spread has been repeatedly linked to bars, and in many states, rises in case counts have been temporally associated with the reopening of bars,” Kelly Haight Connor says. The communications manager of the North Carolina Department of Health in Raleigh responded to Port City Daily’s questions about the restrictions put on bars versus other businesses, after reaching out to the governor’s office. Connor points to increased close contact from socializing in closed spaces, often for extended periods of time, as problematic. 

“These risks are mitigated, although not eliminated, in outdoor spaces where air circulates freely,” she adds.

Thus, Brothers is not so lucky in welcoming customers into his other establishment, Red Dogs—an enclosed area located above Jimmy’s at Wrightsville Beach. Red Dogs will stay shuttered at least until October 23, when the governor will re-evaluate if Phase 3 restrictions can ease in the era of COVID-19.

“We are now the only industry in the state that cannot operate in some capacity indoors,” Brothers says.  

In May, during Phase 2, Governor Cooper authorized the reopening of restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries and bottle shops at 50% capacity, indoors and out. Brothers expected to be up and running back then. The business owner outfitted his bars with dividers, sanitizing stations and signs regarding a mandatory mask policy, and put in place a rigorous disinfecting plan.

“But we got bumped [from Phase 2] at the end of May without any warning, as we watched our competition open and crush it,” he says. “Out of the 7,000 ABC permits given to establishments in the state, only 1,063 (15%) of us were not allowed to operate. Many of us are barely hanging on at this point.”

So far Brothers has accrued $70,000 in debt to pay expenses during the economic downturn, and has received little help in the way of PPP, unemployment or grants. His costs are upward of $10,000 a month to keep open both locations. “And that doesn’t include the $1,800 for liquor licenses per bar we had to pay for, but have not been allowed to use thus far,” he adds. 

The outdoor patio at The Dubliner allows at least some customers to visit the bar; establishments without outdoor spaces aren’t as lucky. (Port City Daily photo / Ben Schachtman)

Last night The Dubliner saw many regulars congregating on its patio for the first time since March 17. Though slower than a normal weekend evening, Brothers was happy to be behind the pine, even if it meant serving 30 people instead of the normal 100. 

“Everyone was outside and spread out accordingly,” he says. “I’m not sure how some other places with small patios are handling it.”

Bar owners face tough numbers

Establishments with limited outdoor space — like The Opera Room on Grace Street — won’t benefit much from relaxed regulations. (Port City Daily photo / Ben Schachtman)

Part of the reopening plan, according to Connor, requires bar owners to ensure guests remain seated at tables and counters separated 6 feet apart from other groups. Paired with outdoor restrictions to serve, those measures don’t suit Sandy Perotto’s business, The Opera Room, located on Grace Street in downtown Wilmington. Perotto just doesn’t have enough patio space to quantify opening. 

“They’re requiring a max of seven people per 1,000 square feet,” she says. “That’s two out front and one out back of The Opera Room. Three customers drinking 75 cent drafts ain’t gonna turn the lights on.”

On the other side of downtown, at Orange and South Front streets, behind The Little Dipper, Lula’s Pub owner Bryan Jacobs was experiencing a mix of emotions Friday afternoon as he and his business partner, Mick Sherwood, were rushing to complete renovations and ensure COVID compliant measures were in place. Jacobs weighed whether it was too soon to open for public safety. In fact, he didn’t expect to be back in business through the end of the year.

“Everyday I walk to the downtown post office and the majority of people are going about their day without masks on,” he says. “When the restaurants were allowed to open, people began to abuse it and treat them like bars. Yet, we have more than 200,000 deaths in the US and 20% of the world’s cases. . . . I just wish we would have shut down everything solid for three months and maybe we wouldn’t be in this predicament now.”

Since Jacobs took over the 28-year-old Lula’s more than a decade ago, he has sunk his life savings into its operations—mostly over the last seven months. Without Lula’s revenue coming back full force, nor receiving any real help from the government (“We are the only industry they have forgotten, it seems”), he doesn’t foresee getting even a quarter of his business back anytime soon under these new restrictions.

Lula’s, tucked away on the south side of downtown. (Port City Daily photo / Shea Carver)

“We usually have great specials and Sunday night trivia, not to mention fun Halloween plans, but none of that will be a part of our reopening right now,” Jacob says. “So last night I just wrote on our specials board, ‘We’re open! Isn’t that special enough?’”

To be treated the same as other industries is all Brothers wants from North Carolina elected officials. He estimates a two-year recovery period at least before reaching pre-COVID numbers. With winter approaching, he says the 30% cap for outdoor seating only doesn’t seem like a viable model to recoup lost business.

“We are just looking for the same treatment from the governor that he is giving everyone else,” Brothers says. “We need to be given a fighting chance to survive because right now things look very bleak for our industry as a whole.”

The original story incorrectly referenced “Nick” Sherwood rather than “Mick.” Port City Daily regrets the error.

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