The Bars are Back, Baby! (Part 1)

The Bars are Back, Baby! – By Heather Straub

It’s been an interesting time for The Dive Bar Tourist and fellow dive bar enthusiasts. Shortly after we started this venture, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many of our favorite dives were shut down.

For some, these places were a temporary escape. For others, they were a second home.

After almost three months of isolation and social distancing, states are beginning to ease up on restrictions and let people back into their favorite bars. Thanks in large part to community support, as far as we know all but one of the dives we’ve covered have survived this. People who can afford to donate have been generous with GoFundMe pages, and most places offering takeout food and drink have found that people are happy to come out for a small (and quite literal) taste of normalcy.

The Dive Bar Tourist spoke with the owners of five of the bars we’ve covered in the past to get an idea of how the reopening process is going and to answer every regular’s burning question: Will our dive bar ever be the same?

  1. Brown’s Wyoming Tavern in Wyoming, Delaware

Brown’s is this contributor’s favorite haunt. I spoke with Barbara Kirk, who owns the bar, and also had the chance to see some of the new policies in action.

Brown’s was completely closed during the shutdown, but thanks to Remedy Deli (which kept me supplied with cheese steaks—thank you!) and the adjacent package store, they were able to keep their heads above water financially. As of June 20, the bar is at 60% capacity, and signs are posted reminding everyone to wear masks unless they are seated. Bar seating just became available, and Barbara was excited to add some outdoor options as well.

Barb was a little flustered when I arrived, and she explained from behind one of the required masks that she’d just gotten back from a two-hour trek to find margarita mix and blaster cups. It was one hassle she hadn’t expected to deal with upon reopening: suppliers appear to be low on the most basic things, and scheduling deliveries has been more challenging, too. The disorganization is a frustrating obstacle as she tries to get the place back to something resembling normal.

“It’s been difficult,” she said between ringing up customers in the package store. However, Barb assured me that she sees Brown’s making a full recovery. “I’ve seen a lot of faces I love to see.”

I passed some of these regulars on my way in, clustered at one end of the bar while the masked bartender, Sue, chatted and put their drink orders together. Technically, households are supposed to stay together and there should be some distance between the rest, but at dive bars…you get to choose your family.

The bar has yet to reach full capacity, but Barbara said they’re almost there. Sue chimed in to say customers are staying later. They may even be looking to ask some of the other bartenders back to help out.

However, Barb doesn’t see it being quite the same as before until customers can mingle again. “People want to be able to experience the things that make this place special.” These things include the pool table, shuffleboard, and darts, which likely won’t be options for a while.

Still, in an effort to boost the economy, the governor is being more lenient in other areas, like allowing outdoor seating. It’s something Barb has always wanted to try, and although this week’s rain put a bit of a damper on the trial run, she’s excited to try it more easily and more cheaply than she could have before the pandemic. If people like it, it may continue to be an option in the future.

This horse-lady-turned-bar-owner says she will keep everyone apprised of changing hours and policies, and thanks her patrons for keeping them going. She claims she has “the best patrons in the state of Delaware”—and I’m inclined to agree!

  1. The Looney Bin in Bradley, Illinois

We’re big fans of this dive bar meets music venue. The thing that makes this place really special? The owner: Nick Huffman. He keeps it real and spoke to us very candidly about reopening and how the shutdown affected his bar.

As of June 22, they’re at 50% capacity, but Nick doesn’t actually know what his capacity is. Since he brings some of the nation’s best bands in to play at “The Shittiest Place” officials pretty much just ask him to make sure everyone can reach the exits safely.

“So…half of that,” Nick says.

He’s also able to fit another 40-50 people outdoors, which, like Brown’s, was not an option before the shutdown. He’s been able to get something else he’s wanted for a long time, too—a privacy fence that will allow him to install an outdoor stage. He’s even convinced the governor to let them shut down the street for a block party. “You know that whole give them an inch, take a mile thing? That shit works both ways.”

According to Nick, business has been good. The bar will make a full recovery, and they’ll “be better off in the long run.”

But don’t let these silver linings fool you—Nick is frustrated. He describes the “snot shields” they put up around the poker machines as something that makes you feel like you’re trying to talk to your girl from behind prison glass. When asked if he found it difficult to adhere to the new guidelines, he admitted “I got a mask. I wore it for like seven minutes.”

Everyone’s anxious to get back to normal, and Nick’s doing everything he can to get himself and his customers there. His latest venture? He’s helped put together the first COVID-friendly concert in Illinois featuring the band, Local H. The venue? A drive-in movie theater. The first show sold out so fast they added a second, and if all goes well there is the potential for it to become a tour.

Nick is a busy man who’s passionate about music, The Looney Bin, and brutal honesty. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

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We received so much great info from these bars we couldn’t fit them all in one post! Check back on June 30th to see how our friends at Don’s Drive-Inn, The Blaguard, and The Rustic Hut are doing.

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