Coronavirus killed the party: Alabama halts reopening of night clubs and bar games
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Bad Axe Throwing plans to open a Spanish Fort venue in late August. (Photo courtesy of Bad Axe Throwing)Courtesy of Bad Axe Throwing

When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Wilson announced a loosening of the state health order allowing bars and taverns to reopen under safe social distancing guidelines, the phone calls erupted at Veet’s Bar.

“Everyone’s jaws dropped,” said Gina Jo Previto, a manager at the family-owned downtown nightclub that, since 1998, routinely hosts musicians and late-night entertainment. “Customers were wanting to reserve a seat for Monday night at the bar. Bands are calling. We are a live music venue, six days a week. I told the musicians that we’ll book y’all tentatively if we are ready and when we are ready to go. If we’re not ready, you all won’t be playing.”

The music and the dancing will have to wait a bit longer. As taverns and bars are allowed to reopen – as long as the bar stools are moved six feet away from each other – music venues and establishments labeled as “nightclubs” were given the bad news earlier this week: Keep on waiting.

And for the bars and taverns thinking they can reopen with games such as cornhole and pool, health officials are telling them to forget-about-it.

What is a night club?

At Veet’s Bar and other night clubs throughout Alabama, the doors will remain shut. “It’s not financially feasible for us to open at this time,” said Previto, whose establishment is undergoing renovations inside and who is hopeful for more normalcy and a further loosening of restrictions by next month.

Confusion over what types of bars and bar-related activities could restart under the amended “Safer at Home” order lingered for much of the week. The Alabama Attorney General’s Office offered some clarity on Monday, by making a distinction after consulting with the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board:

-The main purpose of a “night club” is to socialize, consume alcohol and dance.

-Nightclubs typically have a dance floor area.

-Night clubs generally open for business at night and are open in the early morning hours.

-Adherence to social distancing guidelines would be near impossible at a night club.

Said Previto, “At a night club, you have bands and dance floors and people are drinking. They get closer. It’s going to happen. You rope off your dance floor, but you can’t charge a cover. Bartenders aren’t going to wear a mask. We work 12-hour shifts. Who’s going to wear a mask? We’re at 50% capacity and hiring more people to oversee more things, which is safe. Financially, it’s hell.”

Darts, axes and corn hole

Bar games, for the most part, are prohibited under the latest State Health Order issued in Alabama. The reasoning: They don't prevent congregating, which would protect patrons from COVID-19. Julia Hatmaker | [email protected]

But as the week wore on, more questions emerged about what is no longer allowed inside a traditional bar or tavern.

On Tuesday, Mobile County Health Department epidemiologist Rendi Murphree rattled off a list of other events not allowed to restart under the current order: pool, darts, foosball, axe throwing, corn hole, tiddlywinks, and full-contact Jenga.

Murphree said she received the list from state officials, who did not share a similar list with AL.com.

“The spirit of the order was not to allow gatherings around common pool tables or foosball tables or corn hole or whatever sort of things are in bars that would cause people to be within six feet of another within extended periods of time,” said Murphree. “The night club designation is an easy one. It’s gotten a lot of attention. But it has to be a place where socializing and drinking and staying open late is discouraged and not allowed in the Safer at Home order.”

She added, “Read the order and don’t socialize and break the order. It was issued as an emergency rule. You could be charged with a misdemeanor.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health, in response to questions about the order, forwarded to AL.com an ABC Board directive about night clubs that echoed the Attorney General’s definition. The directive also said that restaurants and bars can close off dance floors and place tables in a manner that complies with social distancing, change hours of operations to be consistent with restaurants, among other things.

When asked about bar games like pool and darts, ABC Board spokesman Dean Argo said, “It stands to reason that the Health Department would prohibit the activities you mentioned because of the social distancing order. There is no way that patrons could participate in those activities and still observe the 6-foot distance requirement.”

Some bar owners, however, are reopening and promoting their activities at safe social distance from each other. At 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales in Birmingham, manager Brian McGraw said the dart boards are set up at 6-foot distances from each other. He said his establishment is maintaining a strict capacity limit during reopening – no more than 20 people will likely be inside at one time – and tables and booths have been “well-spaced.”

“Everyone is welcome,” said McGraw. “It’s kind of a traveler beware type of thing. We do things on our end to make sure everyone who decides to show up is … that we maintain their safety.”

Bad Axe Throwing, with locations in Huntsville and Spanish Fort, remains closed under the current state health order. Mario Zelaya, the president & CEO of the company, claims he can reopen under strict social distancing and sanitization guidelines.

“We are not one of those categories like movie theaters and bowling allies,” said Zelaya. “We don’t fall into those clear buckets. We are hoping we get some clarity from the governor and her office.”

Bad Axe Throwing had a slow reopening in states that loosened health order early on like Georgia. The reopening of the Atlanta venue last month was a “complete disaster,” Zelaya said. The company, at the time it reopened, required parties of at least eight to book for axe tossing competitions. They then dropped the limit to four, assigned 12-foot private lanes to groups to ensure social distancing and added free t-shirt or medallion promotion. Those changes helped bring some of the crowds back, Zelaya said.

“In Atlanta, we saw the sales jump,” he said. “It’s not a path where we can claim we’re making a profit, because we are not. I think people are too afraid to go out.”

Health risks

Health experts are supportive of the State Health Order’s ban on night club reopening as the coronavirus pandemic continues to add newer cases daily in Alabama. According to state records, Alabama has 11,674 cases with over 4,000 added in the past 14 days. Since the pandemic struck last month, 485 Alabama residents have died from the virus.

The biggest concern with night clubs is the propensity for congregation, according to Dr. Ellen Eaton, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases. Mix alcohol with music, and people become “less diligent” toward hand hygiene and maintaining social distancing, Eaton said.

“Anytime someone is around and dancing and singing and after a few hours and a few drinks, folks are not mindful of face coverings,” said Eaton. “And as the hours pass on, I imagine you see less diligence with hand hygiene and sharing spaces and all of those are high-risk behaviors we would not recommend at this time.”

Eaton compared the risks at a night club to that of a choir practice that generated attention from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week. The CDC examined a deadly outbreak of a 2-1/2-hour choir practice that occurred in early March in Skagit County, Washington. Attended by 61 people, the March 10 practice infected 52 people (87%) with COVID-19 symptoms and has since been described as a “super spreader” event.

According to the CDC’s review of the event, the “act of singing, itself, might have contributed to the transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by the loudness of vocalization.”

“What we’re learning is that in small groups, even with choirs and people singing, is that singing is a good way to spread coronavirus,” said Eaton.

A new study, published Wednesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that simply talking in a venue that is not well-ventilated, can transmit the virus from person to person through tiny droplets that are suspended in air for up to 14 minutes.

“We know that coronavirus can be transmitted by shared air,” said Eaton. “And what we’re seeing in Birmingham and elsewhere is there are 20-somethings and 30-year-olds who are getting sick with coronavirus. We are surprised to see really sick individuals who were totally healthy before this.”

The Soul Kitchen Music Hall on Dauphin Street in downtown Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Maggie Smith Eynon, co-owner of the Soul Kitchen in downtown Mobile, is hopeful her music venue can open, at least partially, within the next six weeks or so. She said she believes that Soul Kitchen can open to a “small capacity” initially with music in its front room area. The larger backroom would open later under strict social distancing guidelines, she added.

But as far as reopening as a bar – with tables scattered on the dance floor – Enyon said she cannot see that working for a venue with a reputation as a music hall.

For now, Soul Kitchen’s marquee will have to settle on humorous and made-up “coming soon” band announcements: Flu Fighters, Panic at the Costco, System of a Lockdown and the Wu Han Clan.

“I think we could do that if we operated as a bar, but people don’t come to the Soul Kitchen for the drinks,” she said. “They come for music and entertainment. Not only do we need to get back in business, the musicians need work and the crews need work.”

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