S.F. Nightlife Faces Challenging Road to Recovery

Bars, clubs, and live music venues may now reopen, but getting back on track isn’t as easy as it may appear from the outside.

The scene of Phone Booth’s reopening night will forever be etched in Steve Spingola’s memory.

Though the Mission District watering hole was able to open last September, when San Francisco temporarily occupied the orange, or “moderate,” tier of California’s color-coded COVID-19 risk assessment system, Phone Booth has been mostly shuttered since December 2020. 

It wasn’t until last June that the tiny dive bar was able to revel in their first night of full-capacity, maskless, indoor service. 

“The whole bar was filled for the first time,” says Spingola, his voice cracking with emotion. “Someone put on ‘Still Ill’ by The Smith’s and the whole bar started singing together. At the end of that song, I shouted out ‘Welcome home!’”

Spingola is happy to report that his patrons have returned, all of his bartenders are back to working full-time, and the Phone Booth is anticipating that this month is going to be their most profitable month in the history of the bar. But a packed house may not be enough to fully recover. 

One month into reopening, a quick glance at San Francisco’s nightlife and entertainment sector — which includes restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and live music venues — would suggest that business is back to normal. Regulars are bellying up, dancefloors are packed, and indoor concert venues have already begun hosting live shows

But after 16 months of pandemic-induced hibernation, it will require more than the flip of a switch to restore San Francisco nightlife to the way it was in the before times.

BILLS, BILLS, BILLS

Even if this month is one for the record books, Spingola isn’t counting chickens.

“We are really deep in the hole, and we don’t know if we’re going to be able to recover,” he says. “We have a lot of back bills, I’m talking about everything from PG&E to distributors. We love our customers, and are happy that they’ve returned, but it’s going to take a lot of money to get back.”

According to Spingola, Phone Booth was awarded a federal grant from the Small Business Administration, as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed in March. But their aid was rescinded in the wake of lawsuits brought by restaurant owners in Tennessee and Texas who alleged discrimination

The plan contained a $28.6 billion dollar allocation called the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). When the Fund was created in March, lawmakers ordered the Small Business Administration to include a 21-day exclusivity period, according to a report by The New York Times. During this period, priority was given to applicants for pandemic relief on the basis of gender and race. Only applications from women, military veterans and “socially and economically disadvantaged” individuals were to be approved. This included those from certain racial and cultural groups who also had limited financial means according to the agency. 

For those whose aid has since been rescinded, the SBA said these applicants would only receive funds once the SBA “completes processing all previously filed non-priority applications, and only then if the RRF is not exhausted.”

“We’re the ones, my husband Jared and I, who came in when we reopened to scrub everything from top to bottom, to wash everything and get the place up and running,” says Spingola. “We didn’t have any money because we weren’t making any money. We’re really just grasping out for any help we can get.”

With collection agents breathing down his neck, outstanding electricity bills owed to PG&E for the coolers and ice machines that remained running while Phone Booth was closed, and the investments put towards outdoor areas during the more restrictive coronavirus measures, Spingola is desperate, stressed, and almost at a breaking point.

And he isn’t the only one.

WHEN THE SVOG DROPS

While bars like Phone Booth were ready to resume pouring drinks on June 15 — and some live venues, like The Independent, have opened their doors — other live music venues have remained shuttered until they can get a better idea of the lay of the post-pandemic landscape. The looming threat of unforeseen health orders made it difficult to build a full calendar of shows and events. That led some venues, like the Great American Music Hall and Bottom of the Hill, to push back their reopening to August or early September.

“The June 15 reopening date didn’t feel as certain as we needed it to to feel confident,” says Dave Bruno, general manager at the Great American Music Hall. “The cost of reopening, and the work that goes into it, only to have to potentially shut down again would have been really difficult to manage.” 

Even as the uncertainty of reopening subsides and calendars begin to fill up with shows, larger venues may still find themselves in a bind.

Just like Phone Booth, the Great American is feeling a serious financial squeeze. But unlike Spingola, Bruno has more to worry about than stocking and staffing a bar and settling up with vendors and distributors. Before opening their doors, concert halls will need to be cleaned top to bottom, and potentially equipped with a touchless point of sale system. The audio equipment that has laid dormant for more than a year needs to be brought back online by a staff of trained engineers and stage hands. Plus, once all these pieces are in place, Bruno will need more than a handful of devoted patrons to make throwing a show financially viable.

Supply chain issues are also complicating matters, as small bars and major live music venues compete for kegged beer, appliance components, and other necessities that they once took for granted. Bruno says he recently paid $7 a piece for bar mats that cost $4 before the pandemic. What’s more, after the alcohol industry struggled to meet the demand of consumers drinking primarily at home, it is now working to shift back to a model where beer, wine, and spirits are served from behind a bar.

Ultimately, however, all of these hurdles come down to one thing — money. And until Bruno and others get some assistance, which they expect in the form of a nightlife-specific federal subsidy, getting back on track is going to be a tall order.

“The money we’re waiting on from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) is really critical,” says Bruno as he enumerates his to-do list. “Once we receive that, we can pay off our vendors, service our beer lines, and replace equipment.”

The SVOG is a federal relief fund, earmarked for live music and art venues affected by COVID-19. As of July 6, the SVOG has handed out $2 billion in aid, or about 12.5 percent of its $16 billion budget, to 4,222 recipients according to a report released by the Small Business Administration, which is overseeing the distribution of the funds.

Lynn Schwarz, co-owner of Bottom of the Hill, is also banking on the SVOG to do some much needed refurbishment.

“Years of punk rock shows take their toll on any restroom!” she says.

Both Bruno and Schwarz are in different phases of the waiting process for SVOG funds. Bruno says he was approved for a grant, but that disbursement has been delayed. He was first told money would come through on July 4, but that date was then pushed to July 15. Schwarz does not know if her club will even qualify.

Getting the money would be a “game changer” for Bottom of the Hill, according to Schwarz. “It will mean the difference between limping to the finish line of this marathon, and being able to open with some amount of confidence and a few dollars.”

Neither Bottom of the Hill nor the Great American benefit from the perks that Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio enjoys. The live jazz venue is legally a restaurant, and actually reopened in April. Still, even while Mr. Tipple’s is fortunate to have an alternative revenue stream and although the venue’s founder, Jay Bordeleau, gives credit to his “amazingly reasonable landlord,” money is still tight.

A little bit of assistance from the SVOG would be “hugely helpful in taking care of our back books and giving us a sound footing,” Bordeleau says.

HOMECOMING

“It’s been a very stressful 15 months,” says Rakesh Modi, owner and manager of the SoMa nightclub, OMG. “Expenses mounted while we were closed as there was absolutely no source of income. But now begins the hard work of making up that deficit in revenue.”

Modi is currently juggling work schedules for his fully vaccinated staff, struggling to make up for happy hour revenue lost to remote work, and impatiently waiting for BART to add additional trains past 9 p.m., so that those in the East Bay can partake in OMG’s festivities. The way he sees it, all these challenges make it feel like “opening up your businesses all over again.”

Hurdles such as these are just another tricky clause in the Faustian bargain made by those in the nightlife industry, according to Bruno. “It doesn’t pay well, and it’s a lot of work for the pay, but I’d rather do this than work in a cubicle at an insurance company,” he says.

Yet, even as Modi clings to the fond memory of going to bed at a reasonable hour these past 15 months instead of at 4 a.m., he feels an overall sense of relief and is confident that business will bounce back thanks to his loyal community following. 

“Having been through the 1980s, not in San Francisco but elsewhere in the world, the coronavirus pandemic felt similar to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Bars are a ‘safe space’ where people congregate and get to know each other, and COVID-19 — like HIV/AIDS — put a stop to it. One of the key roles of gay bars, espcially in circumstances like these, is to provide a supportive envrionnment where people can see familiar faces, hug each other, and feel a sense of belonging again.” 

And while his feet may hurt after months away from the job, Bordeleau is grateful that business is strong and that people are eager to hear live music.

“To see the joy on people’s faces when they’re in the room, let alone when the first song of the band hits, and the joy on the musician’s faces when the audience applauds — That part has been rewarding, uplifting and just really amazing,” Bordeleau says.

Ultimately, one month into reopening, the joy of returning is tinged with its fair share of nagging doubts. For his part Modi hopes to use this long-awaited moment as a call to action. “Now is the time to go out, meet people, and support your local bars,” he says.


Sienna Barnes is an intern at SF Weekly. Twitter @is_nenaB

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