John Guggenmos, co-owner of the D.C. gay bars Number 9 and Trade, says he and his business partners support Mayor Muriel Bowser’s efforts to keep people safe as the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 continues to rise in the city.
But Guggenmos and other gay bar owners say the mayor’s most recent order requiring bars and restaurants to stop serving alcoholic beverages after 10 p.m. has had a devastating impact on what had already been a major decline in business since the COVID restrictions were put in place earlier this year.
“We see hope on the horizon,” Guggenmos said. “But for many places it’s just going to be too late. It is sad because even if I am in a position that we can weather this storm better, if other places in the neighborhood don’t, then we all suffer.”
David Perruzza, owner of the Adams Morgan gay sports bar Pitchers and its adjoining lesbian bar A League of Her Own, said gay bar customers traditionally come out to the clubs after 9 p.m. and often remain there several hours later.
Under the mayor’s current Phase II rules for addressing the COVID health emergency all restaurants and bars must close at midnight, two hours earlier than the pre-epidemic closing time of 2 a.m. during the week and three hours sooner than the normal 3 a.m. closing time on weekends. That restriction by itself has resulted in a significant drop in revenue for bars and nightclubs, including LGBTQ clubs, officials with the clubs have said.
The new restriction put in place last month banning liquor sales after 10 p.m. allows bars and restaurants to continue to stay open until midnight. But Guggenmos, Perruzza and other bar owners say few if any customers would likely come in to order non-alcoholic beverages. Thus they and nearly all of the city’s bar and restaurant owners have decided to close at 10 p.m. until the restrictions are lifted, a development that has further curtailed their businesses.
“I’ve had the worst two weekends of my life at the bar,” said Perruzza in referring to the weekends following the ban on liquor sales after 10 p.m. “I can’t sustain a business this way,” he said.
Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the D.C. Department of Health, has said city inspectors have found that more violations of the COVID-related health restrictions at restaurants and bars, such as social distancing and mask wearing, were occurring after 10 p.m. as patrons consumed more alcohol. But nightlife advocates have disputed claims that riskier behavior occurs after 10 p.m. They say there are no studies or data to back up those claims.
Perruzza said he understands that while the mayor’s intention is to curtail the spread of the coronavirus he believes the 10 p.m. cutoff on alcohol service will result in large numbers of bar customers going to private parties in people’s homes where there will be fewer safeguards to curtail the virus.
“By her doing this she is going to push people to have more house parties,” Perruzza said. “At least if they’re in a restaurant or bar they’re in a controlled environment where they take their temperature. They make sure everything is sanitized after people leave,” Perruzza said. “People are not required to wear masks when they go to house parties.”
Prior to the start of the pandemic, D.C. was home to at least 15 gay bars or nightclubs in which the clientele was largely LGBTQ. A number of other D.C. bars and nightclubs are considered LGBTQ friendly, according to gay D.C. nightlife advocate Mark Lee, who said those additional establishments have a significant LGBTQ clientele.
In March, Bowser issued her initial emergency health order requiring all “non-essential” businesses, including bars and restaurants, to temporarily close their indoor operations to customers in an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Carryout food and drink orders were allowed, and some of the gay clubs joined other bars and restaurants in putting in place a take-out order business.
A short time later, the DC Eagle, the city’s longest continuously operating gay bar, announced it was permanently closing. The Eagle’s majority owner filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy following longstanding financial problems, but many of the Eagle’s customers believe the pandemic played some role in the permanent shutdown.
At the same time, the popular LGBTQ nightclub Ziegfeld’s-Secrets closed its doors indefinitely after the owner of the building where it was located in the city’s Buzzard’s Point area invoked its longstanding plan to demolish the building to make way for a new condominium and retail development. Ziegfeld’s-Secrets manager Steve Delurba said the club would like to reopen in a new location but efforts to reopen would have to wait until all COVID-19 restrictions on such establishments were lifted.
Among the city’s remaining 13 LGBTQ bars and clubs, all but one has reopened after the mayor put in place the city’s Phase II business reopening plan in June, which allowed bars, restaurants, and other businesses to resume limited indoor operations.
The Fireplace, a gay bar at 2161 P St., N.W. near Dupont Circle, decided to remain closed rather than operate under the COVID restrictions but “definitely” plans to reopen, according Larry Ray, a longtime customer who said he spoke with one of the owners.
Among the other Phase II restrictions for bars, restaurants and nightclubs put in place by Bowser in the spring was the requirement that such establishments must operate at 50 percent of their normal indoor capacity, all patrons must be seated at tables spaced six feet apart, and at least three food items must be served that are prepared on the premises regardless of whether the establishment was exempt from serving food prior to the pandemic. The Phase II order also bans the establishments from offering live entertainment.
Two weeks ago, when the mayor issued her updated order banning the serving of alcoholic beverages after 10 p.m. at bars and restaurants, she also included in the order a reduction in the capacity of customers from 50 percent to 25 percent based on concern that the number of COVID-19 cases was rising in D.C. after the case number had gone down in the spring and summer.
Perruzza told the Blade that due to the Phase II social distancing requirements and the spacing of tables and the ban on allowing customers to stand except to walk in and out and go to the bathroom, Pitchers and his adjoining bar A League of Her Own were never able to reach a 50 percent capacity. At most, he said, he was able to reach a 33 percent capacity, which now must be reduced to 25 percent.
Meanwhile, the D.C. gay bar Dirty Goose at 913 U St., N.W. is among the establishments hit with a fine for allegedly violating the Phase II food serving requirement. According to a report in the Washington City Paper, an inspector from the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration on Nov. 27 cited Dirty Goose for serving only cookies as a food item, saying it failed to provide at least two other types of food such as popcorn or brownies instead of just cookies.
Co-owner Justin Parker told City Paper he plans to contest the citation on grounds that the establishment serves multiple types of cookies that are prepared on the premises and that the different types should be accepted as different food types. He said that ABRA inspectors came to Dirty Goose six or seven times in November prior to citing him for the food violation and found his establishment to be in full compliance with all of the COVID related requirements.
On its Facebook page the Dirty Goose announced on Nov. 10 that it had voluntarily closed its doors after one of its employees tested positive for COVID and out of caution it would remain closed until all remaining employees were tested. On Nov. 15 it announced “we have received all our employees test results and we are ready to reopen,” which happened less than a week later.
In a Nov. 25 Facebook message, Dirty Goose conveyed what appears to be the sentiment shared by the other LGBTQ bar owners and operators.
“First, we would like to thank all of our wonderful family of patrons who have kept us going since May,” the message says. “What a crazy 8 months it’s been!” After announcing the Dirty Goose would be closing at 10 p.m. each day due to the mayor’s order banning alcohol sales after that hour, the message added, “We look forward to continue serving all of you and please know we are continuously following the safety requirements set by the DOH and the safety of our staff and patrons remains our main priority.”
Lee, the longtime D.C. nightlife advocate who served as director of the D.C. Nightlife Council before being furloughed, said the 10 p.m. cutoff for the sale of liquor at bars and restaurants will be especially harmful coming with all the other restrictions.
“The most maddening aspect of Mayor Bowser suddenly halting all alcohol consumption after 10 p.m. at local bars, restaurants, and nightclubs operating in full compliance with public safety protocols and highly restricted service limitations is that there is no actual data or evidence-based rationale for this financially devastating roll-back curfew,” Lee told the Blade.
“This arbitrary edict jeopardizes the survival of hospitality establishments by causing them to lose the major portion of revenue they had been able to generate,” he said. “We’re getting reports that this decision is costing operators up to 60 percent or more of the little money they were making, leaving most with no choice other than to shut down two hours earlier rather than attempt to now serve only food items and non-alcoholic beverages until midnight,” Lee said.
Lee noted that at a press conference on Dec. 7, Bowser acknowledged that nightlife establishments, including restaurants and bars, have done an exemplary job of complying with health requirements and providing a safe space for patrons and employees.
At that press conference the mayor also said she looks forward to being able to lift all restrictions on businesses once the COVID vaccine becomes widely available. But she said that with a resurgence of COVID cases in D.C. in recent weeks along with the rise in cases in the surrounding suburbs the city could be forced once again to order the complete shutdown of indoor operations of businesses like restaurants and bars if the local COVID situation worsens.
Perruzza, Guggenmos and Doug Schantz, owner of the gay sports bar Nellie’s at 900 U St., N.W., each said their establishments and others like them serve as a place where LGBTQ people can go to be themselves, which many are unable to do at work, school, or even at home in some situations.
“At some point safe human interactions are what people are craving,” said Guggenmos. “You see someone on the street and how they desperately just want that interaction again,” he said. “If we could do that safely, why not?”
D.C.’s LGBTQ Bars/Restaurants
Nellie’s Sports Bar
900 U Street, N.W.
639 Florida Ave., N.W.
The Dirty Goose
913 U Street, N.W.
1519 17th Street, N.W.
Upper floor at Dupont Italian Kitchen
1637 17th Street, N.W.
Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse restaurant/bar
1609 17th Street, N.W.
1840 18th Street, N.W.
Pitchers/League of Her Own
2317 18th Street, N.W.
2004 18th Street, N.W.
2161 P Street, N.W.
[Temporarily closed during pandemic]
1435 P Street, N.W.
1410 14th Street, N.W.
1335 Green Court, N.W.
D.C. LGBTQ-friendly Bars/Clubs
Dacha Beer Garden
1600 7th Street, N.W.
815 V Street, N.W.
DC 9 Nightclub
1940 9th Street, N.W.
Lower floor at Floriana Restaurant
1602 17th Street, N.W.