Masks still necessary as gayborhood bars and restaurants reopen

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Gayborhood meeting spots like U Bar have only recently begun to open back up.

Philadelphia’s Camac Street, in the heart of the gayborhood, has long been a destination for dining, drinking, and entertainment. “The Little Street of Clubs,” as it is called, is home to several popular gay venues. The establishments are unique in that Camac is really a narrow street — more of an alley. Therefore, patrons have been taking advantage of meeting friends for the to-go drinks or “walktails” outside. Bars and restaurants were allowed to resume selling in a takeout capacity starting in May.

Last month, two of the bars owned by the same parent company, U Bar and Tavern on Camac, posted identical statements on Instagram reminding patrons to wear their masks not only for their own health but also for the health of the businesses and the job security of their staff. 

“WE ARE OPEN!” the posts read. “Our efforts to provide you with walktails and togo food will continue but only with the help of our customers. Public Health Officials are not joking around and right now we must stress that lack of social distancing and masks not worn while on Camac street can and will shut us down. Please follow all guidelines and rules as well as respecting our staff’s request to keep things safe and running.”

Philadelphia restaurants were allowed to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity on September 8. But despite numbers of new infections in Pennsylvania having hit below 600 in recent days, trusted medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have recommended the universal wearing of masks to help prevent surges in infection.

Jerry F. Coleman, who has been in emergency services for over 40 years with experience as a crisis intervention specialist, makes his home not far from the bars on Camac Street. He wrote a letter to the editor in PGN expressing concern at patrons not necessarily keeping masks on. 

According to Coleman, he sees similarities between how Reagan handled AIDS and Trump has handled COVID-19, including that both presidents, “withheld pertinent early warnings that could have allowed us to have the viruses under control and prevent many deaths.”

“The biggest difference,” Coleman said, “is during the AIDS crisis we had social supports available like theatre, bars, restaurants and such connecting us with friends, family, and others in society, COVID19 has us being forced to be alone and isolate.”

Coleman therefore understands the need for people — including gay people whose friends often make up their chosen family — to socialize. 

“[In] general it was most common to observe younger folks ignoring masks and social distancing guidelines because they felt they were invincible, but as data became available I no longer see that as much,” he said after observing bar patrons without masks.

A few blocks away, and also with access to a side alley for congregating safely from traffic, Jocks PHL is a bar that opened at the very beginning of the shutdown. So far, Ben Ablao, Jr. their general manager, has only really known business under the reality of COVID-19. He says patrons have been very mindful of making sure to mask up when sitting outside or coming in to use the restrooms. Of course, once in a while, employees have to speak up. 

“Once we remind the patrons regarding the masks, there have no been problems with compliance. Typically they thank us for reminding them and/or apologize for the oversight,” Ablao, Jr. told PGN. 

This is a sensitive topic for people, local or otherwise, who venture to Camac Street and other watering holes to grab a cocktail in a to-go cup and see friends. Many people are working from home, if they are single they are often alone most of the workweek. A mask, a few friends, and a drink outdoors during happy hour or over the weekend may be the only release they have from the daily grind. 

PGN contacted several people, including staff and patrons of the Camac venues, but no one wished to be quoted for this article. They assured PGN they are doing their best to wear their masks and socialize carefully. But many don’t want to be seen as chiding others or causing businesses to close down, especially now that the city will welcome patrons indoors.

“With the city allowing indoor dining to occur, I hope all establishments are taking precautions to ensure safety for both staff and customers,” Jocks PHL’s Ablao, Jr said. “With many people coming back from Labor Day vacations, we do not want to jinx ourselves with being more concerned with dollar signs than with safety. We can have both.”