An APR News Feature
Mobile has been Alabama’s top hotspot for COVID-19. Restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen last month under restrictions, like social distancing and regular cleanings. Music venues and nightclubs weren’t so lucky. These venues were told they had to wait because social distancing would be impossible. The restrictions have loosened, and nightclubs are slowly reopening within the guidelines.
It has been almost three months since musicians and bands played in downtown Mobile. Alabama’s port city was trading the beads and dubloons of Mardi Gras for the green beer of St. Patrick’s Day. Bar and nightclub owners proclaimed 2020 was the best Mardi Gras in years, putting them a little farther ahead. Then COVID-19 hit.
“That was it. We were all out of jobs. Today's our first day back open in two and a half months. I had nightmares last night that we're not ready,” said Gina Jo Previto, manager of Veet's.
Her family has owned the nightclub for 22 years. The coronavirus shutdown was the first time Veet’s closed its doors ever in two decades.
Now, things are turning around. The club reopened on June 1. The doors unlocked and the regulars returned. The first drinks ordered were a Jameson and a Bud Light. Previto said the first song played on the Jukebox was "Drinking Problem" by Midland.
“Our dance floor is filled with tables and chairs,” Previto said. “They didn't say you could not dance at your table. I hope they don't dance on our tables. And I hope they don't break. But, we're trying to abide by the rules. I'm a people person. They are going to miss their Gina Jo hugs, though. But once they allow Gina Jo hugs back, I'll be giving them. I love those big, long Southern hugs. I really do.”
Noell Broughton owns six bars, nightclubs, and restaurants in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. His 121 employees are now back to work. He took care of his employees during the closure and got them back to work with the help of government loans. It’s the musicians he worries about now.
“I'm going to start back with acoustic duo stuff,” Broughton said. “We'll probably continue that way through the end of the month. Mentally it's been tough. Taking care of my direct employees has been one thing, but all the friendships and relationships with all these musicians, it's really been hard too. I know they're hitting their head, just as hard, if not harder, in some cases.”
Broughton said there is a perception to opening and they have to do it the right way to keep his customers safe.
“We all worked a long time to get to where we are. We will be open 10 years at Thanksgiving. We're excited about that,” he said. “We will have a party or something, so if we can. This is what I was meant to do. I knew it, I knew it when I was in college and bartending and managing restaurants. I love throwing a party. I love seeing all the people. I love being around the music. We're going to be alright.”
After St. Patrick's Day at Alchemy Tavern, the staff celebrated a bartender's birthday. Each had a gut feeling that a shutdown was coming and this was the last time they would be together for a while.
“All of a sudden, the press conference from Montgomery happened and effective 5:00 PM. You're all shut down,” said Matt Charnetski, the owner of the Alchemy Tavern.
“We took advantage of the downtime and one way I was able to try and keep some of the employees with cashflow until they could, or couldn't get unemployment and figure out what was going to happen,” Charnetski said. “We did a lot of cleaning and remodeling. That kept us busy until the day we reopened. It could have kept us busy longer.”
It should be noted that Matt’s mother is with the marketing department at Alabama Public Radio.
Most nightclubs say the one silver lining from being closed is the time for deep cleaning and renovations. Matt kept his employees working and paid as they replaced bars, remodeled bathrooms and made repairs that they didn’t have time to do when they were open. Alchemy is welcoming customers now. But, Matt says it’s unclear when live music can return or if they can have the annual Giant American Party in early July.
“We've got a band of made up of people that work here and we just throw a huge red, white and blue celebration on the third,” he said. “That's one of our biggest days of the year. Can we do it? How can we do it? Trust us that we're trying our hardest to provide a safe, clean, accommodating environment.”
From here, we move onto the Soul Kitchen. It’s the largest music venue on Dauphin Street. Soul Kitchen closed in mid-March and it hasn't reopened. After growth and a few good years, owner Maggie Eynon saved money for renovations and had just hired an architect before the Coronavirus hit. Instead, that savings was used to pay the mortgage and get through COVID-19.
“We can open now at 50 percent capacity but the problem is it's finding bands. We want to be open the 1st of July. Everybody's just in a holding pattern right now. We are trying to come up with creative things to do to be open,” Eynon said. "Country music guys want to work. It's almost like you look at the states, all the Democratic states are staying closed and all the Republican states are opening. Kind of the same thing. Most of your country guys are a little bit more conservative."
Eynon said things should begin to improve in about a month, but it will be a struggle.
“And now with everything else going on, our security's going to have to do more,” she said. “You don't want to go to a concert and have to wear a mask. Concerts are supposed to be a place where you forget about your problems, right? Isn't that the point of live music? One of my favorite musicians is Frank Turner in, he has a song 'Be More Kind.' In a world that's gone mad, just try and do your best and be a little more kind. That's all you can do. Right?"
Live music and venues helped revitalize downtown Mobile and give people reasons to keep coming back. Many are hoping they both return very soon. All are hoping Governor's Kay Ivey announces in early July that crowds in these clubs can return to normal. A lot of that will depend on the direction of COVID-19.