When photos started circulating last weekend of pandemic-fatigued New Yorkers crowding around in front of bars, David Booher, who owns Icon, an LGBTQ bar in Astoria, was not tempted to join in.

“We thought about potentially reopening and doing to-go drinks and everything,” Booher said. “On one side, we’re a business that needs to stay afloat and pay our bills. But on the other side, we want to do what’s responsible and take care of our community. Because these aren’t just customers we’re getting money from — they’re our family."

“Once we get to Phase 3 and we’re able to reopen our inside space, we have control over the situation,” he continued. “We can say, ‘You have to wear a mask, you’re too close, you need to socially distance.’ We can control the situation to ensure safety, instead of just selling someone alcohol and saying, ‘Go have a party on the street.’”

But assuming the two-week-per-phase reopening plan continues (the city is expected to enter Phase 2 on Monday, June 22nd) and bars are able to fully reopen their doors this summer, will the experience of going to a bar even be recognizable?

Prior to the pandemic, Icon was an intimate neighborhood bar where half the clientele on a given night knew each other. The bar regularly hosted DJs and drag performances. They made a float each year for the Queens Pride Parade.

When Icon reopens, Booher — who says he begins every day by watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press briefing and looking at the latest COVID-19 figures — plans to have a door person checking temperatures, hand sanitizer by the entrance, stools spaced six feet apart, and mask requirements for all patrons.

Icon, seen with patrons packed in for a Drag Race watch party in pre-pandemic times.

Icon, seen with patrons packed in for a Drag Race watch party in pre-pandemic times.

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Icon, seen with patrons packed in for a Drag Race watch party in pre-pandemic times.
David Booher

“People are going to have to come up with creative ways to put the straws under their masks, but we’ll figure it out,” he said. “We don’t want to reopen with the illusion of safety — we want to reopen a safe space. If people are in a group too close together or without face masks, we’ll have to be like, ‘Guys, help me out, y’all gotta social distance.’ There’s the police and the liquor authority going around and doing all the checks and everything, but on top of that, anyone with a cell phone — the last thing you would want is to be irresponsible and have it posted all over social media and it becomes a big problem.”

After every bar in New York City was ordered to close on March 16th, several iconic establishments — Coogan’s in Washington Heights, Lucky Strike in SoHo, Foley's in Midtown — announced they’d be going out of business for good. But other places have figured out ways to both keep their businesses going and preserve their character.

Harlem Hops, a two-year-old bar that specializes in craft beers, started selling beer in crowlers (32 oz. cans) and operating as a take-out business. Co-founder Kim Harris said they’ve been breaking even during the whole pandemic, and the last two weeks have seen an uptick in sales.

“In all actuality, we’ve seen a more intimate experience with our clientele, which is something we appreciate,” Harris said. “In the bar setting, on occasion you get an opportunity to have an intimate relationship with your customer. Now, people are learning more about beer in a different way, sampling it in a different way, and it’s not as rushed. I think the staff appreciates that, because our staff are beertenders — this is their expertise.”

Harris said that once Phase 3 comes, she’d be interested in opening up the backyard and the area in front of the bar for seating. But her current model — letting people order at the counter, one at a time — is working for now.

“It’s more about the safety of our community and the health of our community,” she said. “[The coronavirus] is a problem in our community, and we don’t want to further impact it just for a dollar.”

A bartender at Harlem Hops shows off a selection of beers the bar is now selling to-go.

A bartender at Harlem Hops shows off a selection of beers the bar is now selling to-go.

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A bartender at Harlem Hops shows off a selection of beers the bar is now selling to-go.
Harlem Hops

But the impact of the coronavirus has been felt — and interpreted — differently across the five boroughs.

Last Wednesday, a group of about 150 bar, restaurant, and salon owners met with local elected officials at the Salty Dog bar in Bay Ridge to demand clearer guidelines for reopening.

Tom Casatelli, a co-owner of The Kettle Black and Ho’Brah, said that many of his customers are ready to come back, and they’re losing patience with the shifting rules from the city and state.

“My big thing is, every time they move the goalposts, the people who are adamant that this thing should be over and we should be back, they have a little more support,” said Casatelli. “They say, ‘Look, we did everything they asked. We flattened the curve, we have the ventilators, we shut our businesses, we interrupted our lives, we took our kids out of school.’ We understand the deaths, and the families who have lost people. We lost people. But to have no end in sight is very frustrating, and that’s where I’m at right now.”

He said many business owners at the meeting were exasperated by the fact that what was supposed to be a coordinated, multi-state reopening plan totally dissolved. At one point, a group from Staten Island threatened to march across the Verrazzano Bridge and shut down traffic if their concerns weren’t addressed.

“We don’t want to do any of that,” said Casatelli. “There are a lot bigger issues in this world right now, with the George Floyd thing, and those protests, and what’s happening around the country. But that being said, what’s happening with this industry is important as well. I’m not equating the two, by any means. But there’s a lot of damage being done by businesses not being able to open. And with the rest of the country kind of opening up a little bit faster than what’s happening here, you’re starting to see that it’s not totally out of the realm of rationality, that maybe in New York City, it’s time.”

In other states that reopened before New York, restaurants and bars are closing again after employees have tested positive, and overall case numbers have gone up.

City Councilmember Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge and was in attendance at the meeting, said he understands their underlying frustration.

“I said, ‘No one should have to do that. You guys shouldn’t be threatening to shut down the Verrazzano Bridge just to get clear guidance on how to reopen your bars and restaurants,’” said Brannan.

He argues that many people in the area — bar owners and residents alike — are giving up on the “just say no” pandemic guidelines because of mixed messaging from on high.

“It’s nonstop confusion,” said Brannan. “And on top of that, because enforcement is arbitrary at best, there’s no one giving answers, no one giving guidance. Things are unravelling and people are starting to do their own thing, it’s impossible to control anybody. And when you have folks who are in the hole for three months rent, it’s impossible to hold them back anymore. And I don’t want to see these guys get in trouble or lose their license or get fined, nobody wants that. But the mixed messaging has pushed people to take things into their own hands, and I blame the mayor and the governor for that.”

Lisa Menicino, the owner of Cubbyhole in the West Village, is considering a rogue reopening just for Pride weekend. But she said she fears that her patrons will form crowds, and just make the problem worse.

“It’s no fault of their own — people are tired and they want to get out,” said Menicino. “But they have to cooperate. If the Cubbyhole is to make it through the pandemic, and if other bars are to make it, we have to depend on the cooperation of our customers, and it’s gonna be a pain in the ass! And as you can see from the pictures, they’re not in the mood to be cooperative.”

Menicino said she takes pride in the fact that Cubbyhole — one of three remaining lesbian bars in New York City, and one of only 16 left nationwide — had never previously closed.

“We stayed open through 9/11, through Sandy, through blackouts and blizzards,” she said. “Whatever it was, we wanted a place for our community to come and talk about what was going on and feel safe. We never closed for a single day in almost 27 years — until March 16th.”

When Cubbyhole does reopen, Menicino said she’ll be halving the indoor capacity (it’s only a 600-square-foot bar to begin with), putting up a sneeze guard for the bartender, and requiring customers to wear masks.

“It’s gonna suck! With all the guidelines, it’s gonna just suck!” she said. “People come to a bar because it’s congenial, it’s communal. But they are going to have to deal.

“New York has been through hell,” she added, “and I don’t want to contribute to bringing it back to that point. I'm going to do my part, but I’m going to ask my customers to do their part for their own safety. Because the worst thing would be to open and then have to close again.”