Re-Opening: Philly’s Gay-owned Businesses Adjust To COVID-19

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The roofdeck at Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar.

Editor’s Note: Visit the City of Philadelphia web site for the most up-to-date information on COVID-19 and re-opening plans.

In this new series, we’ll check in with some Philadelphia’s LGBTQ businesses, organizations, and individuals to see how they have been coping with life and lockdown in the time of COVID-19. This week we spoke to some of the best-loved social spots in the city’s famed Gayborhood. 

Since mid-March most Philadelphians have been isolated in their homes. Social outings went virtual. Hair has gone uncut. Standing six-feet apart at the grocery and most other places is the new normal. A whole cottage industry has been born: making face masks at the dining room table. Betsy Ross would be proud. Now, though, businesses are nearly set to return. Philadelphia will enter the “green” phase of reopening on Friday, June 26, though some restrictions — including a ban on indoor dining — will remain in place until July 3.

For many of us, a Friday night or weekday happy hour meant catching up with friends at a gay-owned bar or restaurant. These venues were some of the first to be shuttered in the wake of the coronavirus. And even though they will be able to re-open their spaces soon, the past months have been very trying for those who work there. 

“We have taken steps to make sure that our staff are all in safe spaces and well both mentally and physically,” said Jeffrey Sotland, one of the owners of Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar, which employs some 30 people. “We have had food delivery days for them, weekly check-ins, and online chats. Like many people in the service industry, they are quite social and do miss seeing all their friends and customers.”

Randal Mrazic, the managing director for the Tavern Group, which owns both the Tavern on Camac complex and Ubar just down the alley, said his 45-employee company banded together during the pandemic. They remained social but distant, as many families have been forced to do. His employees set up a private social network to keep tabs on each other and also established a weekly virtual happy hour on Zoom. Keeping a family spirit included colleagues sharing groceries or meals.

“These are the things that seemed instinctual to many of our people and have really made me feel grateful for working with such a great team of caring and thoughtful folks,” Mrazic said. “At the beginning, we learned that our employees were having difficulty navigating an overburdened and overwhelmed unemployment system. From the get go, Stephen [Carlino, owner of Tavern Group] wanted to make sure that we used every resource we had to continue to pay our employees as best we could so that our people still had personal cash flow so they were able to keep up with living expenses.”

Customers of Ubar and Tavern on Camac have been able to get to-go beverages, which have been dubbed “walktails,” as well as food.

Knock, a mainstay of the Gayborhood, reopens outdoor seating on July 1 and indoor seating on July 3.

“We plan on a 50 percent capacity in the dining room,” said Larry Kleppinger, the manager of Knock for the past seven years. In addition to socially-distanced seating both inside and out, there are other changes being made to the dining room. 

“We will be providing individual condiment servings, disposable menus, as well as hand sanitizer when you walk in and masks if you don’t already have one. All patrons must wear a mask in, and once seated they may take it off, but it must be put back on to walk around the restaurant. Staff will be wearing masks and gloves,” he assures us. “Kitchen personnel will be socially distanced as well and will have masks. They always wear gloves. There will be signs instructing people before they even enter on what is expected.”

In 2019 we celebrated 50 years of the Stonewall uprising. This year marks 50 years of the first gay pride parade. It was supposed to be, many speculated, a huge event in many destinations, and the cancellation of Pride in Philadelphia has meant a huge loss of revenue for many bars and businesses.

Sotland, like many in Philly, was disheartened that Pride wouldn’t happen in-person this year. 

“Due to the timing of the shutdown, we had not yet started work on Pride. Early discussions with individuals in the city lead us to the realization that there would be no Pride and likely” he sadly predicts, “no OutFest. While we are not pleased with these events being canceled for the community, we see it as the right decision for everyone’s well being.”

LGBTQ-people, who are often forced to choose their own families, are known to take care of each other. Fortunately, for the City of Brotherly Love, its businesses in the heart of the gay community have cared well for each other and the customers they serve. Hopefully, in the coming months, we’ll start to see people return to their gayborhood “home.”

Next week, we’ll take a look at how the city’s LGBTQ sports teams are doing.

This series is produced in partnership with Visit Philadelphia.