Not tapped out yet: Unable to reopen, frustrated bar owners hang on, hope for vaccine

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  • Michael Lavalle is the owner of the Brass Cat pub in Easthampton, which is currently closed. Photographed on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Lavalle is the owner of the Brass Cat pub in Easthampton, which is currently closed. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Lavalle is the owner of the Brass Cat pub in Easthampton, which is currently closed. Photographed on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim McGorry, owner of Ye Ol’ Watering Hole in Northampton, talks about the bar and the effects of the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim McGorry, owner of Ye Ol’ Watering Hole in Northampton, talks about the bar and the effects of the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim McGorry, owner of Ye Ol’ Watering Hole in Northampton, talks about his bar and the effects of the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2020 3:19:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, Jim McGorry says he will “be the first in line to take it.”

His business depends on it. Ye Ol’ Watering Hole, the city bar he has owned for nearly three decades, has been closed since mid-March due to the pandemic and can’t reopen until Phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan. The state defines that final phase as the “new normal,” or when “development of vaccines and/or treatments enable resumption of ‘new normal.’”

“I’m praying for a vaccine,” McGorry said.

Restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol if customers also order food made on site, according to the state’s current guidelines. “Potato chips, pretzels, and other pre-packaged, shelf stable foods, or other food prepared off-site, do not constitute food ‘prepared on-site,’” the guidelines say.

With no idea when Phase 4 might begin, owners of bars that don’t serve food, like McGorry, are frustrated they cannot do business.

Gigantic, a cocktail bar on Cottage Street in Easthampton that doesn’t have a kitchen, has been closed since mid-March. James Stillwaggon, the bar’s owner, goes into the space regularly to check on it.

“Seeing it empty is such a sad sight,” he said. “Because it’s such a happy place when it’s full of people.”

Stillwaggon, who lives in Northampton, said he’s lucky to have another job. He is also a professor at Iona College.

Since the bar has been closed, “every day I think about, what are the options that we could do?” said Ned King, the bar’s manager. King has thought about doing takeout cocktails, but they aren’t allowed while the bar is still closed, he said. They have done some fundraising on Instagram with videos teaching people how to mix particular drinks.

Gigantic got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but hasn’t used it, Stillwaggon said. “The problem is we can’t really use it,” he said, noting that 60% of the money needs to go toward payroll, but they can’t open. The money has been sitting in the bank and will probably have to be sent back by the end of the year, Stillwaggon said. He wishes they could put the money into building a kitchen for the bar so it could open.

How is the bar staying afloat?

“We might better use the metaphor of hibernation than seafaring,” Stillwaggon wrote in a follow-up email. “We can hold steady with the intention of opening again because we have a sucker of a landlord (that’s me) and because we didn’t go into debt in order to go into business, so we don’t have massive payments to face every month. We still have taxes and utilities and condo maintenance and licensing fees to pay, and these are coming out of our dwindling bank account. Once that’s tapped, we’ll have some bigger questions to face.”

Nevertheless, Stillwaggon is pretty confident the bar will reopen on the other side of the pandemic. “As long as the desire is there,” he said, adding that he wonders how the pandemic may change people’s social habits.

Down Cottage Street, Michael Lavalle, owner of the Brass Cat, said it’s frustrating to be closed.

“I understand the whole science behind it,” he said, “if bars are operating as they … used to. But obviously, we’d be under different constraints.”

He’s disappointed in the federal government’s response to the pandemic. “There’s no reason this should be going on this long if we had any cohesive federal response whatsoever,” he said. “It’s brutal.”

Without a kitchen, he said he asked the health department if a hot dog machine would allow him to open, but was told no.

City officials put a lot of thought into what makes the cut for the “food prepared on site” requirement, said Bri Eichstaedt, the city’s health agent. “This was such a hot topic back in June, July,” she said.

Hot dogs don’t count because “the intention of this requirement is for it to be a dining experience,” Eichstaedt said. “The way I explain it to people, you wouldn’t go to Nini’s for a Bud Light. You’d go to Nini’s to get dinner and get a Bud Light with dinner … Our Board of Health didn’t think plopping a hot dog machine on top of a bar made it a dining experience.”

State rules do allow breweries and beer gardens without kitchens to open with food trucks, Eichstaedt said.

That’s what Lavalle did when the weather was warmer. Though he said tables at the beer garden were distanced, some reported the business to the Health Department.

“Some people don’t think anything should be open,” he said. Eichstaedt confirmed some did complain to her department over the summer about the beer garden.

That beer garden is now closed for the winter. Despite the challenges, “I’ll ride this out as long as I can,” Lavalle said, “This is what I do.” He owns the building, “so that helps,” he said. “I won’t evict myself.” A PPP loan and economic injury disaster loan are “keeping things afloat,” he said.

Christian LaChapelle, the owner of the the 413 in Easthampton — “a wee corner pub,” as its Facebook page describes it — is confident. The bar, which doesn’t serve food, is closed, but he plans to bounce back.

“I’m going to reopen and the 413 is going to be there, in my mind, for a long time,” LaChapelle said. Given that the pub opened just a few years ago, “We were just getting started,” he said. He owns the building, which helps, though he still has a mortgage to pay.

“Luckily, for me, my overhead is pretty low,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of employees. I work a lot of hours there.” He also owns the house next door to the bar and rents it out.

The bar has a kitchen, but LaChapelle said it’s outdated. “It would take a decent investment to bring it back,” he said. He’s thought about doing it in the future, but “that’s not something we’re in a position to do just because COVID came we didn’t all of a sudden have $20,000 to invest in a kitchen.” Plus, he added, serving food is “a whole ‘nother ball of wax” bringing in new logistics to the business.

“It’s frustrating, but I get it, I understand it,” he said of the rules preventing the bar from opening. “My heart goes out to those who aren’t going to make it.”

For McGorry, of Ye Ol’ Watering Hole, it doesn’t make sense to allow restaurants to open, but not bars.

Though the bar doesn’t have a kitchen, “I could follow the exact same protocols of places that serve food,” he said, talking about requiring masks when not consuming food, distancing tables, and sanitizing surfaces. “Seems not fair to me,” he said in late October. But as COVID cases increased around the country, McGorry felt differently about it in mid-November.

“Even if I could, I don’t know if I would,” he said of trying to reopen with food. “I don’t feel like it’s safe yet,” he said Friday morning. “At this point with that being the case, I’m more inclined to wait for a vaccine than I am to do something with food.”

Restaurants are not risk-free. About 80% of COVID cases this spring were tied to indoor spaces such as restaurants and gyms, according to a recent New York Times report on research published in the journal Nature. Restaurants were the riskiest space, according to the article. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published this fall found that those who tested positive for COVID “were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative ... results.”

For now, McGorry said loans are keeping the business afloat and he’s taking the opportunity to do some renovations on the space.

“I’m trying to fix up my place, and I’m hoping it pays off,” he said. While working on the building, people have walked by and told him, ‘We can’t wait for you to open,’” he said.

“I hope you say that when I open,” McGorry said. “I’m going to need the help.”

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