Bartenders Share What Their Jobs, Lives Look Like In A COVID-19 World

During a global pandemic when wearing masks and self-isolating have become the new norm, we ― the thirsty and social ― have wondered: Will bar culture ever be the same again?

What were once bustling and energetic spaces, bars returning to their pre-coronavirus operations seems impossible now: Squeezing through a crowd to order a drink; waiting in a congested bathroom line; leaning over the bar to tell the bartender what you’d like to order; kissing a stranger you only met minutes earlier.

When this became obvious in April, HuffPost talked to seven bartenders about their livelihoods and how our favorite dives and cocktail spots might open back up. Now, with many patrons rejecting new health precautions as bars, restaurants and retail stores slowly reopen, their musings feel particularly relevant. They also talked about how financially precarious it is to work in the hospitality industry these days, and whether they actually think bar life can return to normal.

These interviews have been edited for clarity.

Siobahn Jones, 29 

Bartender at The Peterboro in Midtown

Did you lose your job because of the coronavirus?

I was technically laid off because of the shelter-in-place order. Although we are open for takeout with limited hours, they wanted us to all be able to apply for unemployment. [As of April 10], I’ve applied for unemployment but still haven’t received any funds. In the meantime, I’m getting by doing odd jobs and a tiny bit of savings.

What do you miss about your work? 

I miss every single thing about bartending. I miss connecting with my guests and creating an amazing experience for them. I miss the rhythm my coworkers and I have. I miss the exhilarating chaos of the three of us behind the bar, managing a full 20-seat rail while also servicing a packed dining room. I miss making someone their perfect cocktail. I miss the late-night adventures in the city after we’ve all clocked out.

Will you continue bartending when bars reopen? 

Our bar is set to reopen July 10, and I will be returning. They don’t want to rush the opening so they’re giving us a chance to tell them what we need to feel safe in the space, while making sure to take all the precautions they possibly can. 

But it’s hard to visualize what this will look like. The restaurant and food industry won’t ever be the same after this. We operate on the thinnest margins of almost any industry. Turning a profit is incredibly difficult, especially in the early years. We are underinsured, underpaid and often underappreciated. We provide a setting for others to celebrate, to entertain, to be nourished, to be libated and most importantly to be together. So as things take a turn for the better, and we’re able to come together again, let’s not forget the very places that have made that possible in the past.

Are you nervous about being exposed to COVID now and/or when you return? 

I definitely have my own fears about being around people who aren’t also wearing a mask. I definitely feel anxious about my interactions with guests. I just hope people understand that we’re all doing our best. I also worry that because we’re only allowed to be at 50% capacity, our incomes will suffer because we won’t be able to turn tables/seats as quickly. 

Matthew Schierle, 37

Brooklyn, New York

Bartender at Bushwick Country Club in Williamsburg

Did you lose your job because of the pandemic?

I lost my job when bars and restaurants became take-out/delivery only. Since then, I have just stayed home. Every year my friend and I do a Sober February, which was moved to March this year. So when I ended up without a job, I didn’t fall into a “might as well get drunk at noon” routine. According to Instagram, that seems to be something a lot of people have been doing. 

Does your job have financial aid for you if you can’t work?

My job has the same system for medical financial aid that any bar has for medical expenses: We set up a GoFundMe and ask for help. 

Unemployment helps, but it hasn’t been the easiest for a lot of people to get through and actually apply. I have friends who have called hundreds of times a day.  

What do you miss about bartending? 

We have a great community of friends and regulars. We still have Facebook chats and text chains, but it isn’t quite the same. There isn’t the tactile experience of clinking tequila shots. My idiot friends can’t drunkenly play Big Buck Hunter and make fools of themselves. 

The only real positive with this whole thing is that I am actually getting proper sleep. This is the first time in years that I go to bed before 2 a.m. and wake up at like 8:45 in the morning. 

Has your bar reopened? 

My bar has not officially reopened. The owner has done a couple of pop-up to-go things, but nothing permanent. Many of my friends at different bars have been running to-go programs.

Are you nervous about being exposed to coronavirus when you return? 

I am not too nervous about being exposed. I wear a mask when I am out, and I will wear one when I am back at work. I don’t completely understand why everyone is wearing gloves. I see a lot of people wearing gloves but then touching their face. If you aren’t going to put on a new pair each time you interact with a new person, then you’re just contaminating things with your dirty gloves. You’re much better off sanitizing and washing your hands over and over again.

Shae Minnillo, 34

New Orleans 

Bartender at a restaurant in the French Quarter

Did you lose your job because of the pandemic?

My restaurant, along with all other bars and restaurants in New Orleans, closed down on Monday, March 16. I filed for unemployment a day or two later, thankfully. The website and phone lines got flooded after.

Did you or any of your workers get coronavirus?

Anyone I know or worked with that exhibited symptoms was denied testing. I can remember two or three coworkers who reported fever or shortness of breath a week or two before New Orleans shut down. I’m pretty sure they were denied tests because their fevers were considered mild. 

Does your job have financial aid for you if you can’t work?

The benefits/insurance program I was paying into was cut off immediately. A lot of major liquor brands and bartender “clubs” or “guilds” have donated a lot of money to an emergency relief fund and shown face on social media but I don’t know many individuals who have received grants. Sitting on millions of dollars while some people still haven’t been able to receive unemployment checks seems a bit wacky. 

For me, this is truly a moment of asking the person you used to work beside, “Do you have enough food this week? Need a plate?” I think a lot of us are working on the micro a little bit more than usual. 

What do you miss about the job? 

I started bartending ― or at least working in a restaurant ― almost 10 years ago. At first it was a way to make money no matter what city I happened to be in. I graduated from college in 2008 to an economic depression and for two years worked a shitty job that underpaid and never gave me more than 30 hours a week. I learned very early on that I greatly appreciated “hospitality” as an overarching way of life — tragic servitude mentality, I know. It helped me adapt away from the shy kid I was for the early part of my life. Suddenly, I could confidently bullshit with any schmuck and not dwell on the exchange for too long after. Essentially, bartending helped me socialize myself to the world around me.

So what I end up missing about bartending seems to be: camaraderie with the handful of people you end up spending most of your time. I have lifelong respect and love for a number of fellow bartenders, barbacks, and barbacks-turned-bartenders. And the after — by which I mean dropping by your local after-work bar to grab a round, give a deep nod of mutual respect for the bog we all reside in, tip appropriately, and move yourself home so you can do it all again tomorrow. 

Will you continue bartending when bars reopen?

My restaurant has reopened. I haven’t been recalled yet — probably not until July if the numbers stay low. Bars that don’t have food licenses are now open. I’ve noticed a lot of tourists since Phase 2 started. Also, not a lot of masks and not as much distancing.

I’m fairly certain I will end up bartending again. It’s definitely a time for a large chunk of the population to recalibrate, but I just don’t know what I would want to do otherwise this very moment. 

As for where and why I would return to work, that largely depends on what reopens and how many places do not. I think the job market for food and beverages is going to be flooded. You will see former executive chefs taking line cook jobs that they spent a decade to get out of. I think you’ll also see a lot of former sous chefs take on barback roles or something comparable in front-of-house. If my former spot doesn’t reopen I’m looking to the bars/restaurants that have been giving out family meals to laid-off industry folks, the homeless, things like that. See which people are being human — those are the ones you go and work for, if you’re able to.

Are you nervous about being exposed to the virus when you return?

I think a lot of restaurants and bars will implement procedures to cut down potential mass exposure. Masks and gloves are basic necessities for reopening right now. But I also think we’ll be hit with at least one more massive wave of infection. If you’ve ever worked at a restaurant, worked in an office, been in a classroom … One person walks in with a cold or flu and by the end of week everyone has it. Of course I’m nervous. You’d be a damn fool if you’re not.

Pietro Scorsone, 45

Brooklyn, New York

Bartender at Metropolitan Bar in Williamsburg for 16 years

Did you lose your job because of stay-at-home measures? 

Yes. Right now I’m collecting unemployment while looking for other work. It’s hard with the stay-at-home order in place.

What do you miss about bartending? 

A lot of us are drawn to this work because we enjoy interacting with people. I miss the running jokes with regulars, goofing about watching Grindr dates gone wrong, the laughs — more than anything, the laughs. The upside to all this is the amount of time I’ve been able to spend with my husband. While working we were on very opposite schedules. 

I also miss my LGBTQIA+ family so much! I’m looking forward to seeing the hilarious sloppy drunk hookups and follow-up walks of shame when this all ends. You know some people are going to make some highly comedic choices coming out of isolation!

Do you plan to go back to bartending?

The Metropolitan Bar has not reopened yet. I’m still collecting unemployment theoretically, but I haven’t received any benefits since May 3 because of a computer error. I have some colleagues who have only just started receiving benefits after months of attempting to file. This has been a frightening experience. It’s also been quite the emotional ride.

The idea of returning is also a bit unnerving. I’d guess there’ll be some sort of gradual reopen with diminished capacity. Will that be profitable enough to make a decent living? The prospect of working full shifts in a mask is also tough. My morning jog is tough enough in a mask; working will be a nightmare. I think the biggest change will be the re-socialization of crowds. A lot of people aren’t used to much direct human interaction anymore.

As a native New Yorker, I already have trepidation with regard to riding the subway again, let alone being in a crowd with drunk people. These are things I’ve always felt comfortable with as part of my everyday life. 

Meryl Gellman, 30

Brookyn, New York 

Bartender at Butter & Scotch, a cocktail bar/bakery in Crown Heights, for more than a year

Did you lose your job because of the pandemic? 

I did, we were a part of the big shutdown of New York City. My full-time job after the closure was finding a way to successfully apply for unemployment. Before self-quarantining, my creative partner and I were getting ourselves ready to start pitching a television series that we wrote, so I have been able to focus a lot of energy on that project. 

Do you get any kind of financial aid?

Butter & Scotch is a small business and can’t offer financial aid, but half of all gift card sales are going directly to the employees and the other half back to the business to help us towards reopening.

What do you miss about bartending?

The most obvious void in my life is the lack of social interaction. Secondly, going from running around and shaking cocktails for 10 hours a day, five days a week to moving between three rooms of my apartment has been a major shock to my system. That’s not to say there haven’t been upsides. Quite the contrary; I feel like I keep finding little upsides all over the place. Most importantly, I’d say the shiniest silver lining has been having the ability to shift my focus from taking care of others to taking care of myself.

Are you nervous about being exposed to coronavirus when you go back to work? 

A fair amount of friends have gone back to work and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the bars that are open now. Along with the chaos of implementing new systems, they’re still dealing with customers who scream at them because they’re not allowed to use the bathroom, who sneak onto the patio to drink the cocktails they just purchased, who want to have their margarita exactly how they want it despite everything being pre-made. 

I was very nervous about exposure going back to work for quite a while, but as more research becomes available. I feel more confident that the standard safety measures (masks, gloves, social distancing) will at least keep industry workers safe while our storefronts are open for to-go orders. I expect we will be receiving a new standardized set of health guidelines from the Department of Health once bars and restaurants in New York City go back to regular service, and that everyone’s first DOH inspection will be pretty wild. 

It’s hard to know exactly how all of this will affect how bartenders do their jobs. It can seem like no big deal to bartend with a mask on when you’re just batching cocktails in an empty bar all day, but once the music is on and seats are filled, something as simple as communicating with your guests while wearing a mask could present difficulties and frustrations.

Do you feel differently about the job now?

No, in that the reason I do this job will never change. I love it. I love to bartend. I love meeting new people, I love being a neighborhood presence that people can depend on when they need a shoulder or a smile or a safe space or a shot. Now more than ever, people need to feel community, acceptance and validation, which is the true service that bartenders provide.

Yes, in that everything will become more complicated. Stricter regulations, cumbersome bartending accessories like masks and gloves, explaining to people what has changed and why it’s changed and why they can’t do or have all the things they’re used to, even more difficulty addressing the “Karen” mentality.

This also means that people who bartend just for money and don’t really care about what they do may discover that they need to find something else to do since this is no longer the “chill” job they once knew. Chances are, we’re not going to be financially compensated for that extra work, certainly not by the businesses and likely not in tips either. We just have to do it because we love it. 

Doug Dawson, 50 

Charlotte, North Carolina

General Manager of The Workman’s Friend Irish Pub in Plaza Midwood

Douglas Dawson

Douglas Dawson

Did your bar close because of the pandemic?

On March 14 the annual St. Patrick’s bar crawl and the parade were scheduled to take place in uptown Charlotte. Both the crawl and parade were shut down the day before. In hindsight, I do believe our coronavirus numbers in Charlotte would have been so much worse had they gone off as planned. People still came out that weekend, but there was a sense of dread about things. People were going out into crowded spaces, and my staff, especially the younger ones, really didn’t understand what was coming.

The night before St. Pat’s, the owners contacted the general managers of each location with the news that in anticipation of the governor’s order to shut down bars and restaurants, we were ceasing operations. I’ll never forget how hard it was hitting the owners, men just trying to do their best for their family of employees. That Friday we divided up my inventory amongst our staff. That next week the owners started a fundraiser for staff by selling gift cards. They are putting 50% of the proceeds into a need-based fund.

My wife is a bartender/manager at a restaurant called the Crepe Cellar in our neighborhood. She is still working part time, as they have gone to take-out service. We are grateful that she is still able to work, considering all of our income is from the hospitality industry.

I hear horror stories from my staff and others about getting jammed up with unemployment. My daughter is taking it all pretty well, but she is so restless. As the child of two restaurant vets, she is not used to having both of us hovering around all the time.

What do you miss about your job?

I worry so much about my employees, and feel helpless. I worry how they will make out financially. I miss the controlled chaos of a Saturday night, coordinating all the moving parts. 

As far as being patriotic, sitting at home is a lot easier than hitting the beach at Normandy. It’s the least we can do for our neighbors, our families and our communities. I do understand that the landscape will have changed dramatically in the wake of all this — some bars and restaurants won’t survive, peoples habits may change. The better we prepare for those changes now, the less shocking they will be when they happen.   

Having to shut down like this only strengthens my Irish/Sottish resolve — no way are we going out like this! Eventually it will end, and we will go back to doing what we do best — taking care of people, and sharing good food, drink and laughter.  

When will your bar reopen?

The ownership of my group of bars decided we were going to open at the end of June. Even though the state is in Phase 2 of reopening, which includes restaurants at 50% capacity, we decided to wait it out. At this point we have more questions than answers as far as how to operate safely.

Are you nervous about being exposed to the virus when you return?

I am relieved that we did not reopen as soon as we were allowed. Some places were open the moment the governor allowed. I find it hard to believe that the locations that did open that quickly were able to implement procedures, and thoroughly train their staff.

I am definitely nervous about going back to work. My health and the health of my family, and my employees are dependent on the good will of people who just had to go out to eat and drink. I have no illusions about the young, barhopping clientele operating with anything other than self interest.

Do you feel differently about the job now, in COVID world?

We are in a tough spot — return to “normal” with packed houses and be a part of keeping the virus going, or operate with fewer customers and see profits and wages go down. Neither path is an answer.

The nature of bars — groups of people standing around yelling, singing — is kind of frightening to me. How do you police that? How do you keep people safe while staying true to what we are? I don’t have answers, and I’m not seeing them being offered by anyone else. Until a vaccine drops into our lap, there is going to be long-term unemployment in the industry.   

Lyn Holland, 47

Washington, D.C. 

Assistant general manager at 3 Stars Brewing Company, and bar manager at Beau Thai

Was your job affected by the pandemic?

So, I work(ed) in two spots. One, a restaurant, has opened for delivery and takeout; I have not been as a bartender. At the second spot, a brewery, I am working, packing to-go beer orders. Several colleagues have not come back to work as they live with frail/elderly/immunocompromised relatives. They will not take the risk. 

Are you nervous about being exposed to coronavirus at work? 

Very nervous. And a little paranoid. All of our staff wear masks and gloves and change gloves regularly. We also sanitize our hands often, as sometimes we need to remove gloves to use our point of sale.

Guests coming in to purchase beer must wear masks/face coverings and be 6 feet away from my staff and other guests. Basically we only serve two guests at a time. We clean, clean, clean. 

Do you think this will change bar culture?

I do. I worry that guests don’t take it seriously and wonder where they have been, especially if they try to wander in without masks. I feel saddened that I can’t have friends or regulars sit at my bar, tell me about their days, give me hugs on the way out. The back slaps, the hugs, the toasting, the cheers-ing: Bar culture as we know it is probably gone for a long time.

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