Last call? Bar owners await state ruling to reopen

  • Abaz Cecunjanin sits in The Balkan Lounge that was closed by COVID-19 just after it was launched. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Abaz Cecunjanin in The Balkan Lounge that was closed by COVID-19 just after he opened it earlier this year. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • The Balkan Lounge was closed by COVID-19 just after he opened it earlier this year. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2020 5:29:56 PM
Modified: 7/27/2020 5:29:51 PM

A new bar, the Balkan Lounge, opened in Greenfield in January. The building had been a bar before. But the new owner, Abaz Cecunjanin, who also owns the Italian restaurant Terrazza, still invested over $100,000 in startup costs, he said, including an almost complete redecoration of the interior.

Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic reached Massachusetts. The Balkan Lounge, like most consumer-facing businesses, was forced to close. The closure was expected to be temporary: six weeks was the state government’s original advisory for bar owners.

Now, nearly 20 weeks since the initial shutdown, bars still are not able to open, and have no clear idea when they will — even as retail stores and restaurants have been allowed to open to customers, albeit in limited fashion.

At the Balkan Lounge, meanwhile, Cecunjanin still stops by once a week, sometimes less, just to make sure no one has broken in. In his two months between opening in January and closing in March, business had seemed to be going well, he said, even though it hadn’t been enough time to recoup on his initial investment. Now, he is skeptical he will ever earn it back.

“I want to be optimistic. I definitely want to be optimistic,” Cecunjanin said. “But we are in very, very bad shape. It’s very unpredictable.”

In the state’s original four-phase reopening plan, announced in May, bars were considered a Phase 3 business. The first two phases were expected to last three weeks each, putting the start of Phase 3 in early July — though Gov. Charlie Baker also emphasized that reopening would ultimately be dictated by the status of the pandemic. Phase 4 would be allowed when a vaccine or treatment became widely available, or if there were some other major change for the better.

Phase 3 began earlier this month, as expected. But a week before allowing Phase 3 businesses, Baker announced that the list of eligible business types had changed.

Bars — along with several other businesses, mainly in recreation and entertainment — had been moved from Phase 3 to 4. They had been moved from a reopening timeline that was essentially finite, if subject to change, to a timeline that does not even have a tentative date attached to it.

Disappointment in Orange

A handful of local bar owners consulted for this article expressed disappointment and frustration at the change — at not being to reopen when they had expected to, and at having no clear timeline, and therefore no way to plan financially.

Ralph Cutter, a co-owner of R Cee’s Pub, in Orange, said frankly that he expects his bar to go out of business.

“A couple of months wouldn’t have been an issue. Three or four months, I could make,” he said. “But now, we just don’t know. If Fauci’s right, and we have a vaccine at the beginning of the year, could I possibly make that? I don’t know. It would be tight.”

R Cee’s is not without assistance. Cutter was refunded some of his insurance costs, and the town of Orange secured a grant of about $2,500 for his business, he said.

The town even found a legal way for the pub to open. It would use a restaurant license, and would serve food in addition to drinks, even though it doesn’t have a kitchen, Cutter said. The catch is, it can only be filled to 25 percent capacity.

If the pub could reliably fill to 25 percent capacity every day, that might be feasible, Cutter said. But, realistically, he said, it won’t. A lot of his business comes from local billiards leagues, who wouldn’t be able to play. He can’t offer pinball, either.

The largest support system available, the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which essentially offers grants for businesses to continue paying their employees, probably isn’t possible for bars, Cutter said, because there are time-sensitive elements of the program. A bar, as a Phase 4 business, can’t commit to a timeline, he said.

Even if it were financially feasible, the prospect of social distancing in a bar might just defeat the purpose anyway.

“My whole business is socializing,” Cutter said. “You can’t do that from 18 feet away from the person you want to talk to. You can’t get up and walk around with a beer.”

More and more expensive

Regardless of what the state’s policy now actually is, would it have been possible for a bar to operate safely during the pandemic? Restaurants, legally, can do it, and many have. Since Phase 2, it has been legal for restaurants to serve customers outdoors at well-spaced tables, and indoors with social distancing rules. Could something similar have worked for bars?

Lew Collins, who has owned Between the Uprights, a sports bar in Turners Falls, for 12 years, and had managed it for five years before that as the Second Street Sports Bar, said he thought it could be done.

It would be challenging, he admitted, but probably possible. A bar, like a restaurant, could follow stricter sanitation rules, and could require masks and social distancing among customers.

“It’s a tough task, because you’re asking a bartender to become more than a bartender. You’re asking him to become head of maintenance and security,” Collins said. “But I believe we could operate safely under the protocols and guidelines.”

The fact that bars weren’t even given a chance to try is one of the things that frustrates him about the situation, Collins said.

Between the Uprights, he said, is a fixture of the local sports community, and it reflects nearly two decades of work. He doesn’t want to go out of business, but delaying that decision is only becoming more and more expensive. He’s now using part of his unemployment support — which was expanded to include self-employed workers, like small business owners — for costs associated with not closing the bar: insurance, rent, utilities and others.

“I’m putting as much as I possibly can to try and make it happen. It’s tough, it’s heartbreaking if it doesn’t work, and it’s just depressing,” he said. “Is it worth draining everything I have to stay open, and not even know when I can open?”

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