As Arkansas officials relax restrictions on bars and restaurants, bar owners are deciding how to adjust their operations while attempting to recover from the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While bars were permitted to reopen at limited capacity starting in May 2020, an 11 p.m. curfew was in effect from November-February. Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted other restrictions, including capacity limits for bars and restaurants, at the end of February, changing state health directives to recommendations. Hutchinson also lifted the statewide mask mandate March 30. The owners and operators of restaurants, hotels and other businesses will be permitted to set policies on whether or not masks are required in their facilities.
Bo Counts, owner of Pinpoint Fayetteville, said he has not changed his safety protocols, including social distancing and limited capacity, since the guidelines were altered. He hopes to start slowly expanding his bar’s capacity in April, but he will still require customers to wear masks while ordering drinks after the mandate expires, he said.
“It’s going to be a transition period,” Counts said. “There is no flip the switch and ‘yay, everything is back to normal.’ We have to ease into it.”
Counts still has a long way to go to recover from the economic strain of the past year, he said. The bar’s sales are down 50% from before the pandemic began and Counts often barely breaks even.
Al Schaefer, owner of Smoke & Barrel, said space issues and state directives have prevented him from organizing live music shows, which were previously a popular feature of his business. The 11 p.m. curfew increased the strain on his business, causing him to lose valuable operating hours and staff members. Schaefer has seen around a 30% uptick in customers since the curfew was lifted, but he is still making a third of the profits he was pre-pandemic.
“The reality is that I don’t think we are ever going to get back to where we were,” Schaefer said. “I’m an optimist, but I don’t know if there will ever be a ‘normal’ again.”
Troy Gittings, owner of Bugsy’s, bought the bar about three weeks before businesses shut down in March, so he has not been able to experience what operating a bar during “normal times” is like, he said. Gittings’ bar did fairly well over the summer, but he experienced an approximated 75% decline in customers while the curfew was in place, he said.
Gittings said he is thankful to have a staff that has supported and stuck by him during the pandemic.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” Gittings said. “When all of this is over, if our doors are still open, (that is a) win.”
Bugsy’s is currently operating at 50% capacity, and Gittings is waiting until his staff is fully vaccinated to open his business to full capacity, he said.
Schaefer expanded his bar’s seating by one additional booth after the restrictions were altered, but he has kept his bar layout the same. Schaefer plans to discuss future mask requirements with his staff, but he is open to letting customers decide whether or not they want to wear a mask once the mandate is lifted, he said.
Evan Hooper, a bartender at West End, said wearing a mask while bartending has made it more difficult to connect with customers and hear them over the bar’s music. Although he is not yet vaccinated, he would choose to bartend without a mask if given a choice, he said.
Hooper said it was hard to go almost three months without an income when bars initially shut down, and his tips have been limited with fewer customers. West End is now operating at about 50% capacity, and Hooper thinks his tips are starting to return to normal.
Counts thinks Fayetteville’s nightlife may never return to what it was pre-pandemic, because people have changed their behaviors and formed new habits, he said.
“We’ve spent a whole year changing the way we spend our Friday and Saturday nights,” Counts said. “We’ve spent a whole year going to bed earlier and hanging with our friends at home. I think we’ve still got a long way to go before people get comfortable coming back (to bars), staying late and doing things the old way.”