This post is an op-ed from Jeremiah J. Gratza, owner of the Thunderbird Lounge, a bar in Phoenix's Melrose District.
For those of you who do not know who I am, let me give you a brief history: I was homeless off and on from 2002 to 2006. But I worked hard and saved my money. In 2007, Phoenix New Times awarded me “Best Indie Concert Promoter.” In 2011, I bought a house. In 2016, I helped to open Arizona’s first arcade bar, Cobra Arcade. After selling my half of the business, I opened the Thunderbird Lounge with two business partners in April 2019.
When I opened Thunderbird Lounge, I put it all on the line. I took a lien against my house. I cashed out my 401K. I used every cent I had in savings and sold many vintage records and concert posters I had collected over the years to open it up. It paid off! In our first year of business, we were recognized as “Phoenix’s Top Drinking Destinations” by Eater, one of “The Best Bars in Phoenix Right Now” by Thrillist, and “Best New Bar” by Phoenix New Times. We also helped raise over $1,500 for the Human Rights Campaign, $1,000 for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, and $5,000 for our security guard’s daughter to get brain surgery.
When COVID-19 hit, in March, the Thunderbird and other bars in Phoenix were ordered closed. We were forced to change our business model to only takeout and delivery. As a bar, we can't buy alcohol at prices as low as grocery stores can, so our profit margins on takeout alcohol are very low. But we were innovative. We gave away free toilet paper with every order, which got the attention of Fox News and The Kelly Clarkson Show, which was great press. Still, we lost money staying open.
When the Paycheck Protection Program came around, we applied the instant we were able to, but — unlike many large U.S. corporations — we did not receive any money in the first round. Nor did we get a break on rent, utilities, or taxes.
In preparation for a safe reopening, we spent thousands of dollars on personal protective equipment, brought in mobile hand sanitizer stations, and rearranged our large, 4,000-square-foot outdoor patio to better accommodate social distancing.
On June 29, Governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order that ordered Arizona bars to close again. Restaurants that serve alcohol were allowed to stay open. But bars like ours — we carry a Series 6 license, which allows us to serve alcohol but not food — were limited to delivery and takeout orders.
This actually made matters worse for us. Why would anyone come to us for takeout or delivery when they could go to a restaurant nearby and have a drink at their bar? We get multiple calls a day asking if we are open. When we tell them we can only do takeout or delivery, they say okay and hang up. They want to drink here. But since they can't, they are going somewhere else.
In other words, the governor's executive order has not stopped people from going out. It has just stopped them from coming to places like the Thunderbird Lounge. Instead of having a drink safely after work on our outdoor patio, they go to a restaurant with a bar and have a drink inside with no mask on, right next to someone else without a mask on.
Ducey's order paused operations until July 27. Then, last week, the July 27 reopening date was pushed back again.
We were devastated. We had already furloughed our seven employees for the month of July. As things stand, we have no idea how long we will have to keep them furloughed. On an indefinite timeline, you can't plan for anything: Will we required to stay closed for another two weeks? Two months? Until the end of the year?
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I believe the governor can and should do one of two things to help bars like the Thunderbird Lounge.
1. He should alter the executive order. There should not be a liquor license distinction between Series 6 and Series 7 establishments (bars) and Series 12 establishments (restaurants). It should be about indoor drinking and dining versus outdoor drinking and dining — regardless of license type. Keep the current limit on indoor capacity by 50 percent, sure, but allow all establishments that have outdoor patios to utilize those areas. We have a huge patio, and we would be happy to make sure everyone we serve on it follows Arizona Department of Health Services and CDC guidelines to wear a mask, wash your hands, have hand sanitizer stations set up, keep tables six feet apart, limit groups to 10 or less, and limit gatherings to 50 at a time. But we're not allowed under the current order.
2. If the governor insists on forcing specific businesses like ours to close while allowing others to remain open, he should create a program for financially reimbursing us — along with gyms, movie theaters, and water parks — for the losses we incur while complying with his order.
Jeremiah J. Gratza