Ready to raise a glass: After lengthy shutdown, bars brace for reopening this weekend

  • Ned King, owner of Gigantic in Easthampton, cleans off bottles in preparation for opening later in June. Many bars are opening Saturday but King wants to wait until things are better in place. “You would not believe how much dust collects in a year,”King said. “It’s like shoveling in the middle of a snowstorm, you might as well wait till it’s over.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ned King, owner of Gigantic in Easthampton, cleans off bottles in preparation of opening later in June. Many bars are opening Saturday but King wants to wait until things are better in place. “You would not believe how much dust collects in a year,” King said. “It’s like shoveling in the middle of a snowstorm, you might as well wait till it’s over.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gigantic and Amy’s Place, on Cottage Street in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim McGorry, co-owner with his wife, Colleen McGorry of Ye Ol’ Watering Hole in Northampton, talks about opening on Saturday. “My number one priority is people feeling comfortable while they are here,” McGorry said. “It’s emotional for me, we have a faithful customer base here that I looking forward to seeing.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/28/2021 11:42:27 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Bartenders will be back to squeezing fresh citrus for cocktails and serving famous pickle-back shots at Ye Ol’ Watering Hole on Pleasant Street on Saturday after Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week that bars will be allowed to reopen May 29 without any restrictions.

That means no capacity limits, no social distancing requirements and no curfew.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s business as usual,” said Jim McGorry, owner of Ye Ol’ Watering Hole.

After 14½ months, McGorry said he is ready to welcome patrons at the bar he’s owned with his wife for the past 30 years.

“I fully expect to be very busy this weekend,” McGorry said. “People are fed up and pent up and want to come out and have a cocktail at their local bar. I have a feeling it’ll be a pretty busy weekend, but after that, I don’t know what to expect.”

Baker declared that mask-wearing requirements will be rescinded on Saturday and that the pandemic state of emergency will end on June 15. He said the state is on track to meet the goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents by the first week of June. The governor said that 75% of adults have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine in Massachusetts.

McGorry said he will require clientele — which he called “steady as a rock” — to wear masks when they are “up and about” and not seated because he wants to “protect people and make them feel comfortable.” Bartenders will be masked and “extremely diligent” when it comes to cleanliness, he said.

Ye Ol’ Watering Hole has undergone some renovations in the time it’s been closed. Before the pandemic, McGorry set aside funds to have the floors and carpets replaced, to renovate the bathrooms, and to furnish new equipment for behind the bar.

As for keeping the business afloat, “it’s been a challenge, but we’ve been here for a long time,” he said. With the help of some loans, negotiating with the bar’s distributors, cutting expenses, having an understanding landlord, and cutting down on insurance coverage, McGorry said he was able to get through the financial turbulence of the pandemic.

McGorry added he feels like the “last man standing” among the other bars that existed when he first started out three decades ago.

“All these places are gone — Hugo’s, Diva’s (Nightclub), the World War II Club, The Bay State Hotel — all those places had been around for a long time and now are all gone,” he said.

Among the last to open

COVID-19 guidance has changed many times over the course of the pandemic, and while many businesses have been allowed to reopen in limited capacities over the past year, bars that did not prepare food on site were among the last businesses allowed to reopen. With the latest guidance from the Baker administration, there will be no gradual opening of bars with limited seating or time limits for patrons. Bars will operate as they did pre-pandemic.

“I’m ecstatic to finally open,” said Kenny O’Neil, owner of The O’s Music Bar on Amherst Road in Sunderland. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been put through the ringer, so to speak.”

The bar will reopen Saturday with live music, O’Neil said, with plans to bring back karaoke nights, bluegrass nights and original music showcases in the near future.

“With all the restrictions lifted, hopefully it will feel like the new normal,” O’Neil said.

Patrons will not be required to wear masks in the bar, but he said bartenders will continue to wear masks for a little while longer.

“We are going from full stop to trying to get fully operational as quickly as possible,” O’Neil said. “Getting staff back is a huge thing right now, getting new inventory in and old inventory out, and just making sure that the sound system is up to snuff and still working.”

O’Neil managed to keep the business running with the help of government assistance with programs such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program, some grants, and a landlord that allowed him to make payments over time.

The O’s Music Bar is in the process of building a kitchen, O’Neil said, as it’s always been a dream of his. Throughout the pandemic, he has relied on social media to keep his clientele informed that the bar is “not going anywhere.”

At The Spoke on East Pleasant Street in Amherst, owner Chad O’Rourke said his business switched to being a restaurant in January from solely being a bar, which allowed him to open under the state’s regulations. He said with the college student population having left town for the summer, he does not expect a particularly busy weekend.

“We’ve always had a great following of regulars, and we hope and expect that to come back,” O’Rourke said.

He said he is planning on The Spoke to be open four days a week but hopes that with the dropping of restrictions and with rising vaccination rates, he can return to being open seven days a week. He said the establishment has enjoyed a steady following stretching back over the past 37 years and he is hopeful for the future.

Proceeding with caution

In Easthampton, one bar that will not open right away is Gigantic on Cottage Street. Ned King, the bar’s manager, said he is considering opening the bar sometime in June with limited hours and by reservation on the weekends.

“We’re stepping into unknown territory considering the capacity increase is to 100%,” King said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the clientele will respond to that. Comfort levels are all over the place.”

He expects to open the bar by himself with scaled-down seating to create a more intimate experience, but also to allow himself the chance to re-acclimate to bartending after over a yearlong hiatus. The bar stayed connected to its clientele during the early months of the pandemic by creating cocktail lesson videos on social media that were free. Bartenders from Gigantic produced how-to videos for making classic cocktails such as Manhattans or daiquiris.

“Then there was a period where we weren’t sure we’d make it through the pandemic,” King said. “There was a log off period where we were not that active.”

The bar survived with the help of PPP loans and some grants, he said.

The announcement last week that bars would be allowed to reopen without restrictions took King by surprise, and now he is balancing rushing to open the bar while making sure customers feel comfortable as the country begins to wade out of the pandemic.

“We feel pressure to open quickly and we want things to be right,” King said. “Even though I know we could open 100% and anything goes, because of how it is here, it’s not necessarily a smart way to go and it could scare off a lot of the audience … We don’t want to jump the gun, and May 29 kind of came out of nowhere, and we are proceeding with caution, but proceeding nonetheless.”

Close by on Cottage Street, the owner of the Brass Cat, Mike Lavalle, is preparing for a busy weekend.

“It’s long overdue,” Lavalle said, who has been in the bar business for 28 years. “Bars got stuck with it (opening restrictions) for too long. Breweries could have food trucks all winter long and use their space, but bars specifically could not. Both are just rooms for adults to drink in.”

Lavalle pointed out that breweries could continue to sell their products in local and regional stores, but bars were forced to stay closed if they could not prepare food on premises.

The Brass Cat was able to open occasionally throughout the past few months as long as a food truck could show up, which depended on the weather because seating needed to be outside in the bar’s beer garden. Lavalle will open the Brass Cat with no limitations or mask-wearing requirements and resume its pre-pandemic schedule this weekend.

“It’s been a very, very long year … definitely excited to start it up again,” Lavalle said. “Glad to make it.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com


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