It's been seventeen days since we reopened the Occidental, two weeks since my last update. Honestly, we have been working our asses off to ensure that we are providing a safe environment for all. It’s exhausting, but rewarding. Our post-shift drink is the best feeling ever.
Here are some of the practices we have employed — some mandated by the city, some our own policies:
1. We distanced all of our tables and bar stools six feet apart (reducing our capacity by about 50 percent), installed plexiglas barriers on our bar and removed all video games.
2. We fully sanitize every table, chair and surface between guests (a minimum four-minute process).
3. Our staff is constantly sanitizing often-touched surfaces, washing hands frequently — and always washing their hands after contact with any potentially contaminated surfaces.
4. We sanitize and wrap all silverware, and provide individual-use condiments and seasonings (in compostable containers). We removed reusable menus and replaced them with posted chalkboards and an online menu available via a QR code affixed to each table.
5. We use a temporal scanner to take the temperature of each staff member every day prior to shift (mandated by the city and state) and we also scan every guest prior to entry (our choice). If the staffer reads 99.5 or above or is exhibiting any symptoms (coughing, runny nose, etc.), we will kindly inform them that we cannot allow them in the building.
6. We seat every party individually, escort them to their tables and give them a rundown of the simple rules. Rules are also posted at each table. There are signs everywhere.
—masks must cover their nose and mouth.
—masks can be off at the table but must be worn when walking through the room.
—a guest cannot join or approach a party that they did not arrive in with.
We work very hard to provide our usual high level of hospitality within the confines of these new rules. The work is exhausting. A ten-hour shift feels like a 24-hour shift, so we have reduced our operating hours to accommodate. For now, we are closed Monday and Tuesday and only open from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday. (We used to be open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day, and open at 11 a.m. on the weekends.)
Luckily, we have been as busy as we are allowed to be for the past two weeks. About 90 percent of our guests are just so happy to be at a bar, and a few extra rules are no problem for them. They understand why we have to enforce the rules: that it is for their own health and safety, as well as that of our staff. Many of them accept this as the current normal, and are thankful for our diligence.
The 10 percent who are resistant to the rules are much louder. They roll their eyes, push the limits or want to argue politics. I have worked the door every day since reopening because I want to be a buffer for our staff. I deal with the COVID deniers, the headline-reading political scientists and armchair civil libertarians, so that the staff does not have to…. Some of the excuses that I have heard for not wearing a mask are at the same time hilarious and disturbing. A sampling:
“It messes up my lipstick/makeup.”
“I am a doctor/nurse and I don’t have to.”
“It violates my civil liberties/It’s my right as an American to be in public without a mask on.”
“COVID is a hoax.”
“Other bars don’t make me wear it.”
And, just last night, the most curious:
“You are cuckolding me by making me wear a mask just to get a beer. It is emasculating and akin to making me put a *&$% in my mouth; you should also rethink wearing your mask. It says a lot about you.” Needless to say, I didn’t let this genius in the door.
We are resolute in our policies. We handle most of these protestations with humor and kindness, but sometimes you just have to tell someone to get lost.
Since our space and occupancy is limited due to proper distancing, we recently installed a new backyard patio with seven extra tables. It’s not easy to spend money right now, but that patio will help us survive our current limitations. We will open it this Wednesday, July 1.
Also, we are operating with an abundance of caution. Last week, on Sunday morning, a staff member reported that their partner was experiencing flu-like symptoms and might have COVID. We immediately made the decision to close that night and remain closed until we could all be tested. We shut down from Sunday through Thursday and reopened Friday when everyone (including our staff member’s partner) had tested negative. We are all now getting tested every Monday. This is our current normal. I am not willing to risk the safety of our staff or guests to make a few extra dollars. I would rather close the bars than endanger them.
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So, over the past two weeks, we have developed strong systems to keep both our guests and staff safe. We will constantly evolve. Our policies, combined with city and state mandates, have converged to create our new modus operandi. On Old Earth (thank you, Leo DeGroff), Occidental was a bustling, energetic bar where people stood elbow to elbow. Guests walked in, sat themselves, found a spot at the bar or stood at the drink rail. There was a kinetic energy and an incredible sense of community. Our crowd was an eclectic mix of regulars, F&B industry people, and first-timers. Our crew knew many of them, and even if they didn’t, they treated them like they were all old friends. There was boisterous conversation, fans watching their favorite NY sports teams, people singing along or dancing to punk rock, hip-hop and sometimes even Whitney Houston ("I Wanna Dance With Somebody" has been our last-call song). It was, and will be again, the exact type of bar that I would want to be in as a guest.
Here on Middle Earth, there is no standing room, only seating. Tables are six feet apart, guests are not allowed to interact with people they didn’t come with, and masks are required. But, somehow, our staff has found a way to keep the old atmosphere alive, albeit in cellular units, table by table…fifteen mini-Occidentals. Thank you to our reopening staff: Saydee, Kelli, Audrey, Kenny, Shayne, Jimmy, Jon, Taylor, Grant and Brandon…I love you, and am proud to work by your side.
We hope to see you soon.
Sean Kenyon, owner of Williams & Graham, at 3160 Tejon Street; Occidental, at 1950 West 32nd Avenue; and American Bonded, at 2706 Larimer Street, is a longtime Westword contributor and the author of our Behind the Bar series.