Cleveland’s gay bars have been struggling to survive the pandemic. Will patrons return? | News

By Peter Kusnic, The Buckeye Flame

When Governor Mike DeWine ordered the closure of bars and clubs in March 2020 to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Kevin Briggs panicked. He and his husband John had owned Bar & Patio Vibes, a gay bar on Lorain Avenue near West 117th Street in Cleveland, for about a year only. At the start of the pandemic, they didn’t know how long the shutdown would last or whether their fledgling business would survive it.

According to research by an Oberlin College professor, gay bars and nightclubs in Cleveland and across the country had been closing at a high rate for more than a decade before the pandemic.

Would the pandemic add to these closures? Not in Cleveland. Vibe and Cleveland’s handful of gay bars and nightclubs in operation before the pandemic remain open.

They often survived by exploiting federal Covid relief for small businesses and offering programs that appealed to customers’ desires for Covid-safe entertainment.

Briggs remembers the anxiety he felt when he learned of the shutdown, long before vaccines were available.

“You lose money, that’s one thing, but I was really

freaking out about my employees,” Kevin Briggs said. “What will they do?”

the Payroll Protection Program eventually helped cover the salaries of employees at Vibe and other gay bars in Cleveland, but business owners had to dip into their own pockets to cover other expenses: internet, utilities, maintenance costs .

“The bills didn’t stop just because we were closed,” Briggs said.

Like other gay bar owners in the city, Briggs and her husband had other sources of income to keep the lights on during the three-month shutdown. But the reopening that followed in May brought other challenges. There have been new expenses – masks, disinfectants, signage.

Events that bring additional customers and revenue to the city – like CLAW, the annual national leather event downtown – have been cancelled. Social distancing requirements limited the number of people who could be served and fear of COVID-19 limited the number of people who wanted to be served. And while most people were obeying mask mandates and social distancing rules, others were resisting health orders.

Even with such events, staying open before the pandemic was difficult for many such establishments, says Greggor Mattson, professor of LGBTQ+ social history at Oberlin. His research shows that 37% of gay bars and clubs in the country closed between 2007 and 2019.

This rate was much higher in Cleveland due to population decline. The number of LGBTQ+ bars and clubs fell from a peak of more than two dozen establishments serving a wide range of community niches in the 1970s and 1980s, to just six gay bars, mostly small establishments, when the pandemic hit.

Ken Myers, owner of the Leather Stallion Loungenear downtown Cleveland since 2014 and officially the city’s oldest operating gay bar, said keeping a gay bar afloat — even before the pandemic — could be difficult.

“A lot of people don’t understand that a lot of these businesses are labors of love,” Myers said. “We’re here for the community, not to make money, we just try to do our best.”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, things have returned to some semblance of normalcy in Cleveland’s gay bars. Depending on the evening, the dance floor of the Turn is crowded, the pool tables at Cocktails are sold out, the Vibe stage is booked and the Leather Stallion Saloon’s (heated) terrace is the place to be. The Falcon has a regular list of regulars and Old Brooklyn’s Shadow steadily builds a loyal customer base. Studio West 117the newest addition to Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ nightlife scene, actually opened during the pandemic and is already hosting a full slate of events in The Symposiuma “genuine gay bar atmosphere”.

“I think people are going out more than they used to,” said Jim Tasker, who has run Cocktails, a bar in the Cudell neighborhood, for nearly three decades. “It’s like they’ve been so bottled up for so long with all the restrictions. You could feel that energy at the bar.

In the year since vaccines and boosters became widely publicized and government health orders on businesses were lifted, people have started doing more of what they used to do. For Cleveland gays in particular, that often means going out.

Sassy Sascha (center) with Kevin (left) and John Briggs. [Bob Perkoski / Perkoski.com]

“We are about to get back to where we were before the pandemic, in terms of attendance,” said Sascha Mascias, alias sassy sascha, a cis-woman drag queen who hosts events at Vibe, Twist, and other venues across the city. Like many artists, she took her routine online to stay in touch with her audience during the pandemic, but missed the rush of a live audience.

“The show must always go on!” Mascias said.

Nonetheless, COVID is still around, and many people who frequented gay bars before the pandemic are still staying home, some out of caution and others because of lifestyle changes.

Greggor Mattson, whose partner is immunocompromised, is one such person.

“It’s going to be a while before we’re back in bars,” he said.

A professor of LGBTQ+ social history at Oberlin, Mattson interviewed more than 130 owners of LGBTQ+ bars and clubs in 37 states as part of his research work the decline in the number of such companies nationwide over the past two decades.

“To some extent, it’s a historical accident that bars are the only place gay people can be,” he said. “Bars were never the whole of the LGBTQ+ community, but they were important tentpoles. Over time, we acquired more of them.

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Greggor Mattson

Technological advances and sociological changes were stressing gay bars even before the pandemic, he said.

With the rise of dating apps and the social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, community members in Cleveland and other cities across the country now have many more options when it comes to hooking up. Pride flags fly outside all types of businesses – from board game cafes to cafes to other bars. Cruising has become app-based. And, in cities lucky enough to have them, LGBTQ+ centers and other community spaces offer even more non-bar hangouts.

Drinking habits are also changing. Although many people drank more during the pandemic, there are indications that some people — especially Millennials – reduce their alcohol consumption.

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Sassy Saschia at Vibe [Bob Perkoski / Perkoski.com]

While countless other small businesses in the city have closed permanently, Cleveland’s gay bars have so far survived the pandemic.

“It suggests to me that the most vulnerable gay bars had closed before the pandemic,” Mattson noted. “But also, I think the pandemic has reminded us that virtual interactions don’t always replace the in-person fun of sitting next to a stranger and getting to know someone who may be different from you. , whether in terms of generation or ethnicity or hometown.”

As the dust from the pandemic settles, Cleveland’s gay bars are adjusting to a new landscape. The surge of the Delta and Omicron variants has caused further disruption to business in many places, raising concerns about future waves. And as the pool of customers remains smaller than before the pandemic, some sites are struggling while others are thriving.

To attract customers, most bars have redecorated or made other renovations like expanding and weatherizing patios, which have become popular features in the age of social distancing. Some have expanded the lineup, adding attractions such as drag shows, go-go dancers, karaoke, quizzes, open-mic nights, and other events. At Vibe, for example, Briggs launched new events on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, hoping business would pick up.

“We weren’t doing weekday events before, and that definitely helps,” Briggs said.

Meanwhile, other bars haven’t changed much, relying on a built-in base of regulars.

“We all have our crowds and the different things that each bar is known for,” Myers said. He credits the leather stud’s survival to his roots in the leather and fetish community, which the bar will welcome back in force when CLAW returns in April.

“COVID willing,” Myers said dryly.

Cocktails have stopped doing live shows – previously a staple of reliable Friday and Saturday night entertainment – ​​but people have started coming more often for the laid-back atmosphere and everyone knows your name from the main bar to the floor and the newly renovated second bar. the basement, said Tasker, the director of Cocktails.

“Whatever we do, it works,” he said.

Mattson, the Oberlin researcher, said the bars most likely to succeed post-COVID will be those that are deeply involved in their community, support other community organizations, and strive to serve the great diversity of LGBTQ+ people.

“That’s what the places that have survived here in Cleveland are doing or have moved to do a lot more,” he said.

Despite the historic decline of LGBTQ+ bars and clubs, they remain the most common LGBTQ+ space – especially in suburbs and rural areas lacking other friendly spaces.

“These are the places where the decline worries me the most,” Mattson said, “because losing that place can mean losing the only place where someone who has just been released or become a widower can find a connection to the community. “

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Jim Tasker at Cleveland Cocktails [Bob Perkoski / Perkoski.com]

Owners and managers of Cleveland’s gay bars acknowledge the decline, but said they weren’t worried because they understood the need they fill for many parts of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Times have changed,” said Tasker, the director of Cocktails, “but I think some people will always feel more comfortable going to a gay bar.”

For that reason alone, he thinks there will always be at least one gay bar in Cleveland. But it really depends on the customers.

“Whether or not Cocktails is still around in 15 years – I hope so; [even though] I won’t be!” he jokes. “But if customers don’t and continue to support their local gay bars, they will become a memory.”

Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, Ohio.

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is made up of more than 16 Northeast Ohio news outlets, including WKSU and Ideastream Public Media.

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