Around 9pm on Sunday, March 15th I received a text message from a friend simply saying, “It’s over.” Bartenders all around New York got the news that Mayor Bill de Blasio called for the shutdown of all bars and restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had seen it coming for weeks, but nobody knew exactly when it would happen. My neighborhood bar in Gowanus, Brooklyn had a moment of silence and we all thought about what to do next. That night turned into a farewell party to our beloved bar, but between all of the drinking and laughs lay fear and uncertainty. As the realization that we wouldn’t be behind the bar for a long time set in, we panicked about how we would survive. We worried about how to pay rent, bills or buy food in the coming weeks. Thankfully, our customers quickly provided us with a solution.
Less than 24 hours after the news of the shutdown, I was told that a handful of our regulars had pooled together to donate over $1,000 to our bar staff. My coworkers and I were equally as shocked as we were touched. At that point, everyone was scared and struggling, so why did we deserve their money? This one time donation was already enough for us, but our regulars didn’t stop there. Over the next couple of days, we started to see people sharing GoFundMe campaigns for different bars in Brooklyn. Suddenly we had a lifeline for the foreseeable future. My home bar, Lowlands Bar has raised over $4,000 through GoFundMe in less than a month. Some bigger bars, like The Double Windsor in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, have reached over $15,000. These GoFundMe campaigns now span across the country, allowing customers to continue to support their favorite bar staffs and allowing us to endure.
People are starting to get very creative outside of GoFundMe as well. Have A Drink, Leave a Tip allows you to send a tip anywhere in the country. The idea is whenever you make dinner or pour a drink, the website will provide you with a random service worker’s Venmo information. From there, you can tip as you like. Many patrons are doing this on a smaller, more personal level as well. Amy Whitehouse, a former bartender at South Bar, is choosing a different bartender to tip every night as she pours herself a drink at home.
Some Liquor companies are offering compensation for at-home cocktail recipes. Doña Vega Mezcal, Misceo Coffee Liqueur and Cobalto Tequila are all offering $50 for a 1-2 minute at home cocktail. All you have to do is use their brand in the cocktail and tag them in your video. Some bars are even doing to-go service, where customers can grab a batched cocktail and leave an in-person tip for their bartender. The United States Bartenders Guild is offering a Bartender Emergency Assistance Grant which anyone can apply or donate to. Similarly, Another Round, Another Rally is offering $500 relief grants to service workers impacted by COVID-19. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has compiled a list of resources for service workers, including specific links for cities and states. Even if it takes a while to see money or progress, it is uplifting to know that these foundations are on our side
A lot of bartenders will tell you the best part of bartending is the money, but with quarantine and self-isolation, it’s becoming clear it’s the people that we miss the most. With this realization comes the rise of virtual happy hours and drinking games. There are the popular ones like Zoom and HouseParty, which make it easy to connect with your favorite drinking buddies. We are social creatures by nature and these apps allow us to fuel our need for social interaction.
My favorite way to “hang out” with my friends is an app called PokerFace. It is a virtual Texas Hold ‘Em table with live video of everyone playing. You’re able to see, talk, laugh and gamble with your friends, just like at the bar. For those who like drinking games, there is a new game called Stay The F**k Inside. With a $4-$10 donation, you are sent a PDF of 150 cards to be used as a drinking game. The cards include games like Most Likely To, Trivia, Spill or Drink and more. You can play on Zoom or Houseparty with 2-20 people, and 100% of proceeds go to COVID-19 relief. It’s a fun and easy way to stay home and help stop the spread of the virus.
The most calming part through this pandemic has been the solidarity we see across the country. Two Facebook groups, in particular, The Fraternal Order of Bartenders and 8 O’Clock Shot, have helped to keep us close. Personal anecdotes about quarantine life, memes about our situation and even virtual cheers heard ‘round the world all bring us a bit closer to the bar. We see kids tipping their parents for apple juice and people creating and sharing their new cocktail recipes. It allows us to keep things light, despite the uncertainty we feel all around us.
Sometimes, however, the feed isn’t always so cheery. We are also able to face sickness, death and loss together. We can pour one out for someone’s favorite bar owner in Michigan and say a prayer for the best busboy in Alabama. Almost all of us know bartenders and friends that have lost their lives to this virus, and while we may recover financially, it’s harder to bounce back from that reality.
From barbacks to liquor reps, we just want our jobs back, but not until it is safe. For every person struggling with their mental health, people who have lost someone close to them, people who have recovered from COVID-19, and especially the nurses and doctors on the front lines, know that when this is all over, we would be honored to pour your first drink. For the companies, charities, and government workers who are fighting for the service industry, thank you. For the bartenders among us, don’t be scared to ask for help and don’t give up hope just yet. We’ll get through this.