‘It’s Just Brutal’ – Casper Bar Owners and Servers React to New COVID-19 Mandate
Her voice was shaking as she hung up the phone. She said that she was fighting back tears throughout the entire conversation.
This was because, for Laura Ryan, owner of The Beacon Club, as well as the countless number of other bar owners and managers in Casper, this was going to be a hard Christmas.
As if 2020 hasn’t been tiresome enough for the small business owner, Governor Mark Gordon recently announced a mandate that now requires all bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. for on-site consumption.
For the owners themselves, this is a hardship. It’s inconvenient and it certainly hurts their overall income, even with assistance from the CARES Act. But, according to Ryan and various other bar owners across the state, it’s the employees, the servers, that are going to be affected the most.
“I don’t know what they’re afraid of,” Ryan said of the lawmakers who initiated the mandate. “We’re following all the rules and all this is doing is hurting my employees, right at Christmas time. They’re already struggling with shorter hours because we’re not very busy anyway and then, to have all this happen, right before Christmas – it’s just brutal.”
Governor Gordon instituted this new mandate, along with other measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 on December 7. In addition to the curfew, there is also a new mask mandate that requires individuals to wear face coverings indoors in public places.
Additionally, the mandate says that groups of patrons seated together at bars, restaurants, theaters, and other events will be limited to six, unless they are from the same household. Public gatherings that don’t utilize social distancing will be limited to ten people. Similarly, classes at gyms will be limited to ten people as well.
The biggest change, however, is the 10 p.m. curfew. Previously, bars could stay open until the usual 2 a.m. timeframe, as long as social distancing measures were met and masks were required for employees. Now, the new curfew essentially cuts out the peak hours for bars, which impacts the amount of money servers make from tips.
“The curfew is definitely very frustrating,” said Morgan Lee, owner of Frosty’s Bar. “Times are hard enough as is, especially for small businesses. We don’t see as many customers and the bar isn’t making much money. My bartenders and servers aren’t taking home what they’re used to either. And now I have to cut their shifts by several hours. Right before Christmas of all things. They’ve got families to feed, they’ve got Christmas presents to buy. So, on a business level, it’s scary and frustrating. But on a personal level to my employees, I don’t want to hurt their financial status either.”
Lee said that she just doesn’t see the logic in this decision and, in her mind, Governor Gordon hasn’t done a very good job explaining it.
“I would like an explanation as to what makes 10 p.m. any different than midnight or 2 a.m., especially when we already have a diminished capacity. What makes 10 p.m. any different than any other hour of the night?”
According to the National Employment Law Project, servers and bartenders have median earnings of $19,990 and $20,800 per year, respectively. More than half of those earnings come from tips. Cutting out the peak hours of a bar’s service will drastically impact the amount of money servers and bartenders will make each month.
“My night shift is getting hit the hardest,” Ryan stated. “They only get two hours right now, when they’re used to a six-hour shift. And now, if we close at 10 p.m., they’re working from like, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., and they’re not going to make any money. I’ve got employees now looking for other jobs because they’re just not making any money. I’m going to lose a lot of my good employees.”
Olivia Liles is a bartender at The Gaslight Social and she emphasized the fact that, out of all the times to possibly enact this mandate, this was the worst.
“I’m just wondering if the Governor is going to pay my bills,” she said with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. “Or if he’s going to supply funds to those whom I love and care about that could already barely afford to get presents for their children this year.”
Liles continued, saying that “Outside of the fact that this is already a stressful time of the year for everyone, those of us in the restaurant/bar industry are feeling it even harder, especially with this new restriction placed upon us. I know quite a few people who already didn’t think they were going to be able to celebrate the holiday properly, due to lack of funds. Now it just makes it even scarier for those people. It’s not only devastating; it’s terrifying as well.”
And, perhaps, that is the biggest emotion that service workers are feeling right now – terror. The fear of the unknown is always the deepest fear and, for a countless number of bartenders and servers, nothing is known at the moment. They don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills or feed their children or offer any semblance of a “normal” Christmas.
Tessa Coscino is another bartender that is directly affected by the curfew.
“I don’t believe the mandate will do much to stop the spread of COVID,” she said. “Closing bars early only stands to hurt the economy, as well as the owners and employees of our local bars, who are struggling enough as it is. The virus doesn’t get better or worse after 10 p.m. I believe there has to be a better way to help slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Some individuals in the restaurant/bar industry have taken to social media to express and process their emotions.
One bar owner from Rawlins, Jesse Sloan, made waves on Facebook with a funny, timely paraphrase from a classic holiday movie.
Posted by Johnny Macs Good Time Tavern on Monday, December 7, 2020
Sloan was more diplomatic when explaining his position and the effect the mandate has had on his bar, Johnny Mac’s Good Time Tavern.
“We strongly feel that the mandate appears arbitrary and is purposefully singling out the liquor industry in its many forms,” he stated. “There has been no evidence that COVID is any more or less viral in bars or restaurants. And how they [government officials] determine that COVID is more rampant after 10 p.m. has many of us in the industry baffled. The Governor and the Wyoming Health Department have selected who will survive and who will not. It is clear in the Governor’s actions that small businesses are taking a backseat in our economical existence for the state of Wyoming. I’m not sure how an elected official can decide whom they deem as essential and who isn’t. The children of my employees certainly believe their parents are essential to their own quality of life.”
Jim Kanelos, along with his wife Karen, is the owner of The Office Bar and Grill in Casper. For years, The Office has spent weekend evenings offering karaoke to their patrons, typically beginning at 9 p.m. The new mandate will effectively end that for the time being.
Still, Kanelos is trying to remain as positive as he can, given the circumstances.
“This has been a very different year for all of us, no matter what business you’re in,” Kanelos said. “I understand the thinking and this new decision, the new mandate because obviously, you’re going to have people coming together for the holidays – Christmas and New Year’s. New Year’s Eve would be a big party night so, yes, I’m going to be losing quite a bit monetarily, but in the long run, it is what it is and you’ve just gotta roll with it. If we can do what it takes to get this part behind us, then we can put our sights on a better start for next year.”
While Kanelos remains optimistic, even in the wake of uncertainty, others are still struggling with the decision of Governor Gordon.
“I don’t feel like what they’re doing is going to work,” Ryan stated. “And I think that they’re really just picking on bars. Unless they shut down big corporations like Wal-Mart and things like that, I don’t think it’s fair. There’s going to be nothing left in this town except for Wal-Mart if something doesn’t change.”
Amber Pollock serves on the Casper City Council. She is also the owner of Backwards Distilling Co. Regarding the mandate, she said that she just wants to “Remind people that it is critical to support their local bars and restaurants in whatever capacity they can, and hopefully they will continue to do so through what is likely to be a long and difficult several months.”