Dispatches From Seattle

April 02, 2020

Story: Jordan Michelman

Photo: Nick Hensley


Dispatches From Seattle

April 02, 2020

Story: Jordan Michelman

Art: Nick Hensley

Testimonials from bartenders, owners and community organizers in the wake of COVID-19.

It’s strange to think that, only two weeks ago, Seattle was considered the epicenter of COVID-19 in America. For the city itself, this status created a kind of double-edged sword: Economic activity was halted earlier than it was in much of the rest of the country, providing residents and the small businesses they love—including bars and restaurants—a head start in making preparations, all while offering a case study for the rest of the United States.

Seattle went into lockdown on Monday, March 16, by order of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Restaurants continued takeout and delivery, but many bars closed outright—unlike in New York, San Francisco and many other cities, the sale of bottled cocktails to-go is prohibited in Washington state—laying off their staff and making use of Washington’s unique “standby” unemployment category, which designates a temporary loss of work due to a lack of hours, allowing folks seeking unemployment to receive benefits faster. Closures have enlivened a communal spirit in many: Before cocktail bar Canon closed, owner Jamie Boudreau and his employees opened a makeshift takeout window to give away food that would otherwise have been thrown out, and at Liberty, Brandon Paul Weaver has been compiling a running document of resources and tips for his staff about how to navigate unemployment.

Other bars with the capacity to serve food have soldiered on, and last week the state offered a lifeline, relaxing liquor sales laws to allow for the sale of beer, liquor and wine along with the purchase of takeout food (all bottles must be sealed and unopened). But new updates roll in daily, and the closures continue to pile up. From cocktail bars to live music venues, pubs to beer-and-shot joints, Seattle’s industry is reeling, laughing and crying together at the absurdity of it all. 

Brandon Paul Weaver | Co-owner, Liberty Bar

Brandon Paul Weaver worked his way up from bartender to co-owner at Liberty Bar, where today he is working 112-hour weeks, and is faced with the surreal reality of laying off his staff to save them. The bar continues to serve takeout, and performs a nightly “last call” at 2 a.m., shouted out to an empty room and shared on Weaver’s Instagram feed.

Every day is a whole new adventure here in Seattle, but we’ve been fortunate here in some ways, because we’ve had a few weeks to get ready. We were able to order sanitizer and toilet paper through our distributors for our staff, and to give to guests as they come through. We were able to, early on, put new measures in place to make sure our bar is super clean—like, while we still had service going, we had to buy lotion for our hands because of all the washing.

In-house dining and bar sales account for 75 percent of our revenue—and that was gone in a day. So it’s been a lot of figuring out what our schedule looks like, who you can employ, and how to help people file for unemployment. A lot of the hospitality industry in Seattle was getting denied at first because of like, a computer update, and that caused a lot of panic and frustration. I saw hold times as long as four hours. When I called as an employer … the first 20 calls were dropped immediately, and when I was finally placed on hold, I waited another hour from there. Although I must say, the government worker I eventually spoke to was very sweet and helpful. I invited her in for a drink once we open back up.

We don’t have bottled cocktail sales being allowed here, but earlier this week the state did revise the liquor laws so that bars can operate like retail stores. Now, we’re scrambling to figure out what bottles we have to sell, and trying to put together cocktail kits to go along with those bottle sales. It’s another pivot—from a sit-down restaurant and bar to a takeout restaurant with no bar to a retail liquor store that’s also setting up delivery. We might change the name of the bar to “Deliberty.”

Dave Flatman | Co-owner, Screwdriver Bar

Once a basement-level recording studio in the ’80s and ’90s, Screwdriver Bar entered the Belltown scene three years ago, already permeated with grunge-era history. Now that Belltown has become a ghost town, Flatman and his co-owner have been forced to close the bar and its 120-person music venue.

As things were starting to escalate in early March—which seems so, so long ago now—we decided that we would leave it up to artists to cancel their own shows, and otherwise our M.O. was to keep operating business as usual. I think, personally, having a neighborhood bar in any kind of time of hardship or conflict is a huge thing for a community, and we are that bar for a lot of people in the neighborhood.

On Tuesday, March 10, the state of Washington announced any gathering of more than 250 people would be banned, which briefly created this weird silver lining for us, because as such a small venue we were able to take bigger artists from venues that wouldn’t be able to host them. Patti Smith’s guitar player had a show canceled at the Paramount, and he decided to do an impromptu set with us, which was super cool.

On Monday the 16th, the governor made the announcement that all bars and restaurants had to be closed except for takeout or delivery orders. We had to shut our doors then. And since then it’s been weird, man. Initially my biggest concern was being able to pay our staff for the hours they had worked, to get that last round of paychecks covered and pay accrued sick time. We have a small team and they’re all currently laid off temporarily, but they’ve got jobs waiting for them when we reopen and most of them have applied for Washington’s standby unemployment, which feels like a good option.

We’re trying to make the most of it at the bar—deep cleaning, touching up paint, reorganizing—in fact, as you called me, I just got done tearing the entire bar apart, reorganizing and fixing plumbing. It feels good getting stuff done like that, but I would much rather be open.

Megan Radke | Bartender, Canon

One of the city’s most recognizable bartenders, Radke was a national finalist for Speed Rack in 2017. She works at Jamie Boudreau’s Canon, a 40-seat cocktail bar, which temporarily closed on March 16.

I work a Friday-Saturday-Sunday block, and I went in that last weekend [starting March 13] with the mentality of like, “You know what? I’m going to work these shifts, but I think they’re going to be my last shifts, so let’s hustle.”

I was behind the bar on Sunday night, the 15th, when we got the news, at around 7:30 p.m., that bars and restaurants were being closed by the state. And it was just, you know, silence in the bar. The last time I felt that much sadness in a bar was the night Donald Trump was elected. We have a couple of regulars in the medical field who were in that night, and they immediately went and bought us stuff like groceries and dog food. Our guests were all so generous and kind, and I will never forget the look in their eyes that night. It was like, you know, “Sure, I’ll have another Negroni—it might be my fourth, but, whatever.”

Later that night we started getting industry people coming in, for this really sad, small party. But then reality sets in, and the next day I had to wake up and file for unemployment. I spent all week last week crying. I was locked out of my unemployment account and couldn’t get through to anyone for help. It was like running around in circles and I finally just gave myself a few days to mourn and be upset and mad and have a cocktail at night with dinner, which I don’t normally do. Now, this week I’ve finally been able to log back in, to file correctly for unemployment, and that feels like an accomplishment although I know it’s going to be a while. I’m lucky enough personally to have been saving for some kind of world meltdown—this is something I’ve been doing since I was five years old, even as my friends and family kind of made fun of me—and so I’ll be able to pay rent for this month, but I know a lot of my friends can’t. And that’s scary.

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