LGBTQ Atlanta bars innovate to survive pandemic

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LGBTQ Atlanta bar owners have adopted a wide range of ways to keep patrons and employees safe during the coronavirus pandemic, including limiting capacity, scaled-up cleanings and loads of hand sanitizer.

Gov. Brian Kemp gave bars the OK to open on June 1 with limited capacity and with 39 mandatory guidelines to follow. The Atlanta Eagle reopened on June 3 with a renewed emphasis on the bar’s two-level patio.

“I feel that a lot of people feel more comfortable outside and they’re not in a confined space,” owner Richard Ramey told Project Q Atlanta. “I think they enjoy themselves better out there.”

The Eagle checks the temperatures of patrons at the door, employees are required to wear masks (which are optional for patrons), there is hand sanitizer at every door and staff that’s “cleaning constantly behind everyone,” according to Ramey.

“Our businesses are a getaway for people,” he said. “It’s a place that people come to enjoy each other and see each other and meet with their friends and socialize, so we’re trying to do everything we can to take all the other worry away.”

The comments came during Friday’s episode of Q Conversations, Project Q’s new live virtual event series. The episode included Ramey, My Sister’s Room owners Jennifer and Jami Maguire, and Joystick Gamebar and Georgia Beer Garden owners Johnny Martinez and Brandon Ley. (Watch below)

My Sister’s Room, which had a soft reopening on June 10, is limiting capacity to 50 patrons on the main level, 50 in the downstairs bar and 50 on the backyard patio, according to Jennifer Maguire.

“They’re given a different color wristband that grants them access for particular levels,” she said.

The popular lesbian bar started comedy shows and drag shows again, but tables are sanitized between shows, a designated employee collects and sanitizes tip money, and another employee’s sole job is to clean the bar throughout the night. All employees are also required to wear masks.

Patrons at My Sister’s Room have exercised caution since returning to the bar, according to Jami Maguire.

“They seem to be doing everything right,” she said. “They feel comfortable. The ones that don’t feel comfortable are not coming out. We’re not pushing them to come out. They know that we’re taking this very seriously.”

Joystick has been selling “boozy slushies,” bottled cocktail sodas and food to go, though not for dine-in yet. Private reservations for the arcade are now available, Martinez said.

“We’ll slowly ramp up and expand to letting people in at all hours,” he said.

Georgia Beer Garden started brunch service on June 20 with a limited capacity and tables spaced farther apart, according to Ley.

One thing the bars haven’t done yet is to encourage dancing. The Maguires aren’t comfortable opening My Sister’s Room’s dancefloor yet. The Eagle plans on opening its dancefloor in July, Ramey said.

“I’m thinking about requiring masks if we do open the dancefloor because I really don’t see any other way to protect everyone if they’re in close proximity to each other,” he said.

Unemployment system aggravates strain

All the bar owners expressed frustration with navigating relief efforts from the federal Small Business Administration, including the Payroll Protection Program, and the state’s unemployment system.

“This has been a great way to show everyone in this state that we’ve been woefully unprepared with how to deal with unemployment,” Martinez said. “It’s an antiquated system, they’re understaffed and what we end up with is a situation where just to get an answer to a simple question requires days and sometimes weeks just to get that information.”

Jennifer Maguire started a Facebook page in mid-March to offer resources for the city’s service and entertainment industry.

“It was persistence and consistently trying to figure out how the hell to maneuver the PPP and the SBA loans and the unemployment,” she said. “It made me so mad once we were able to obtain it for our staff that I didn’t want to stop, and I wanted to continue fighting for the entertainment industry whether they were 1099 drag performers, DJs, bartenders, etc.”

Help like that in these times is vital for LGBTQ people in particular, according to Martinez.

“If you’re a member of the gay community, you know people who have their immune systems compromised,” he said. “So we need to be looking out for our neighbors and our friends.”

‘We are worried about everything’

While the bars have been allowed to open back up, the financial challenges remain.

“A lot of small businesses are going to have to find a way to survive in less numbers, and I don’t know if everyone’s going to be able to do it,” Ramey said. “It is scary right now because the number of people that we need to come back have not come back.”

Rent and basic utilities cost My Sister’s Room $25,000 a month, according to Jennifer Maguire.

“And we lost Pensacola Pride that we own also at the end of May,” she said. “So it is scary times to be a small business. There are only 16 lesbian bars left in the United States.”

Plus there’s the added anxiety over a possible second wave of infections.

“We are worried about everything,” Martinez said. “We’ve delayed our opening in stages so much specifically because we don’t want to get anyone sick or their friends and family or our staff.”

If the pandemic leads to a second closure, it could mean the end for one of Atlanta’s oldest LGBTQ bars, according to Ramey.

“If we go through another shutdown, I don’t think I’ll survive,” he said. “It’s so important to try to do everything we can to protect these people, and [patrons] are taking a big part in it as well. Everyone’s doing the best they can.”

The bar owners all asked patrons to have patience during this time.

“Understand why we’re asking you to wear a mask and sanitize your hands before you touch our games,” Ley said. “Understand that sometimes you just have to order to-go and go home.”

“We were patient with you when you were throwing up in our bathroom, so be patient with us now,” Martinez added.

“When my customers come out, they don’t try to get in someone else’s space, they respect one another, there’s no mouthing about the customers that do want to wear a mask,” Ramey said. “Everyone is just so full of love right now and understanding, and that really makes our jobs easier.”

This story is made possible through a grant from Facebook Journalism Project’s COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund.

Top image: Brandon Ley and Johnny Martinez, owners of Joystick Gamebar and Georgia Beer Garden; Matt Hennie from Project Q Atlanta; Jami and Jennifer Maquire, owners of My Sister’s Room; Richard Ramey, owner of Atlanta Eagle

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