Roughly six months into the pandemic, many Americans are itching to get back to a sense of normalcy. Schools are returning to in-person classes, concerts and sporting events are taking precautions to be held safely and restaurants are beginning to reopen at reduced capacity.
In Lincoln, restrictions also include wearing a mask or face covering when social distancing can’t be observed. For some business owners, the hardships presented by the initial lockdown were just the beginning, and reopening has presented unexpected challenges.
Kelsey Sanders, owner of the 1867 Bar, a small live music venue downtown, said her business relies heavily on being able to fill its stage and concert hall. Sanders said the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s guidelines have made this incredibly difficult. Sanders opened 1867 Bar in 2016 and said that the pressure of being a newer business is compounded immensely by the pandemic.
“This was going to be our busiest year,” Sanders said. “In April, I had five sold-out shows … This year, we missed out on maybe 150 shows.”
1867 Bar doubles as both a bar and music venue, but Sanders has always considered music the business’ top priority.
Sanders said she feels the response from the local and federal government in helping businesses has been underwhelming, and it’s putting many local businesses in a difficult position.
“Even a rent freeze would’ve been great for us,” Sanders said. “I’m forced to operate at half capacity, but I’m expected to pay 100% of my rent.”
Sanders said that, for music venues, it’s a longer process to return to normal, but she’s grateful that she has the bar to help subsidize the income lost. Sadly, the subsidized income isn’t enough.
“Eventually, our backs are going to be against the wall,” Sanders said. “That’s already happening for a lot of places.”
For venues like the Bourbon Theatre, just across the street from 1867 Bar, the reopening process has been a long and arduous one.
Becki Reagan, the managing partner of the Bourbon Theatre, said the theater would love to reopen, but they can’t, and it’s likely they won’t be able to host shows until summer 2021.
For venues like the Bourbon that hold larger crowds, the process to reopen involves completing a 27-page form required by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. Even then, filling out the form is no guarantee a business can resume.
“It’s hard to get people to come in here and sit down like it’s a bar,” Reagan said. “We’re known for events.”
As of September, the entire staff is still furloughed from working, but have volunteered to help out in any way they can. Bringing staff back to work is not so easy, according to Reagan.
“Our business is sustained by the national tours,” Reagan said. “We need them.”
Reagan said that until national tours resume for bands and artists, the venue will struggle to reopen. Due to capacity constraints, local shows — which are normally held on the Bourbon’s smaller stage — would have to be moved to the larger stage. Unfortunately, using the larger space is something that wouldn’t be viable for making a profit.
Since the shutdown, Reagan said she believes venues have largely been left to fend for themselves by the local and federal government. The Bourbon has joined the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a coalition of more than 2,000 venues working together to allow safe reopening for its members.
A large part of what NIVA is doing has been raising awareness for the Save Our Stages Act. This would include grant money from the federal government that would allow venues still impacted by the coronavirus to receive a grant to cover up to six months of operating costs.
The Bourbon was one of the thousands of small businesses across the country that qualified for a small business loan available through the CARES Act. Reagan said the restrictions on the loans didn’t do enough for the business.
“We had to spend roughly 75% of [the CARES Act loan] on payroll,” Reagan said. “On top of that, we had to use it all in eight weeks. We’re six months into this.”
For Myles Andrews, the general manager at Jake’s Cigars, things are closer to normal. Before last week, Jake’s Cigars was unable to offer cigar smoking inside of the establishment, due to Health Department restrictions.
Andrews said he hopes to see a kickstart in business after reintroducing cigars inside. Jake’s Cigars was lucky to be one of the businesses that remained open during all of lockdown, selling merchandise like cigars and cocktails to-go.
“We’re incredibly thankful for that, because it helped keep us afloat,” Andrews said.
Andrews came into the role of general manager in February and said he had several new ideas for the business in the coming months. Those ideas had to be put on hold, but the bar’s staff has taken advantage of other opportunities.
“The nice thing about the lockdown is that we’ve been able to get a lot of things done,” Andrews said. “We’ve been able to clean and fix things, update stuff that we didn’t have time for before.”
Despite the improvements Andrews and the staff have been able to make, he said they miss being busy and look forward to things going back to routine. Andrews said returning to familiarity is uncertain, but still very exciting.
“Despite the size, Lincoln is a very big small town,” Andrews said. “I think the big thing we need to focus on is to take care of other people, and take care of yourself.”
Kelsey Sanders and Becki Reagan both echo Andrews’ sentiments about the support of the community and other local businesses. Reagan said she remains optimistic that the assistance from the federal government The Bourbon needs is on the way.
“We’re happy for anyone who can be open right now,” Reagan said. “I can’t give up. This has been a big setback, but we will bounce back.”
Sanders said all businesses are trying the best they can to provide the highest quality service possible to their guests.
“There’s not a single person who is benefiting from this [lockdown],” she said. “Well, definitely not any small businesses.”