Mary Hansen and Kristina Meyer spent the last two months giving their shuttered Cedar Rapids bar, Red Lion Lounge, a spruce up — fresh paint, deep cleaning, new flooring and refinished woodwork.
Just two things remained early this week as they prepared to reopen Thursday: installing hand sanitizer stations and rearranging the tables for social distancing.
“In my opinion, it’s much more hard to have social distancing at a bar than a restaurant,” Meyer said. “People don’t come to the bar to eat; when they come here, they’re coming here to socialize, that’s what our lounge is based on. We really need to figure out what we are going to do for our new normal.”
That’s something bar owners across the state are figuring out, with Thursday being the first day they are allowed to reopen after Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered them shut in mid-March in response to the spread of the coronavirus.
Restaurants in this area were allowed to reopen to dine-in customers earlier this month, as long as they followed social distancing guidelines including being at no more than half capacity, spacing tables 6 feet apart, limiting party sizes to 10 or fewer and eliminating self-service food and drink.
Bars must follow those same guidelines. At Red Lion Lounge, that means even with the bar open, things won’t be back to normal yet.
“We have a dance floor where we normally have the singing and swinging, and the karaoke,” Meyer said.
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All that is paused, with tables spaced out across the room instead and karaoke and other live events off the schedule until they’re given the go-ahead to be at full capacity.
At Belle’s Basix in Cedar Rapids, owner Andrew Harrison said he’s also pausing dancing and live entertainment though he plans to reopen the bar Monday.
“You can’t really social distance on a dance floor,” he said. “As of right now, nobody can sit at the bar, so we have tables set up on the dance floor.”
He said he’s going to limit admittance to the bar to 50 people, far below the 50 percent capacity requirement.
“We can’t socially distance behind the bar, and I don’t want to overwhelm one bartender,” he said. “We can have 107 people at half capacity, but that’s what we have on a normal Friday or Saturday night, and that’s pretty busy.”
At Brick Alley Pub in Marion, owner Les Arnold will have bartenders working as servers, with no one allowed to come up to the bar to order a drink.
“That’s how we’ll monitor occupancy. If there’s nowhere to sit, you have to wait outside until someone leaves,” he said. “We’re happy to try to be open, and we hope people realize we’re going to do the best as can and hope we can soon get back to normal procedures.”
During the closure, he applied for and received both a state grant and a Payroll Protection Program loan for Brick Alley that let him keep two employees on his payroll. But he said there is some irony because the loan covered eight weeks of pay and runs out in the next two weeks. Just when he actually has work for them to do besides deep cleaning, he’s not sure he’ll be able to afford to keep them on at full time pay if the half capacity rule keeps business slow.
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Many other bars, including Red Lion Lounge, didn’t get any government financial assistance. Nor did Fat Wally’s, where owner Kurt Luedtke is planning to block off every other pool table inside his downtown Cedar Rapids bar. He also owns the Tycoon, a bar that opens only a handful of times a year and was fully stocked for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 — the day the bars in Iowa were first ordered shut.
“Like a lot of people, our business is hemorrhaging. Hopefully the bleeding can stop,” he said. “It’s like in the flood, when you were totally closed down with no time frame for when you’d be able to reopen. But I’ll weather it. I’m a survivalist.”
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