L.A. Bars Hope to Bounce Back from the Pandemic with a Little Help from Their Old Regulars

After more than a year of closures, attempted reopenings, and quickly changing regulations, L.A.’s beloved watering holes are finding their footing

Nearly 14 months after the COVID-19 pandemic pressed pause on Los Angeles nightlife, Club TeeGee reopened its doors. “It’s been a warm welcome back from the neighborhood,” general manager Nico Ortega says of the popular Atwater Village bar’s reemergence on May 7.

Yet, reopening with yellow tier pandemic restrictions still in place came with challenges. The 25 percent capacity regulation for indoor bars meant that TeeGee would only be allowed to have 25 people inside. The staff has had to navigate new guidelines for serving customers while explaining the rules to patrons. Because the staff has remained about the same, despite shortened hours, overhead has increased. “We do have to have all the same staff for much less volume, just to keep all of our guests happy and make sure that everything is more efficient,” Ortega explains.

And, while Ortega reports that the DJs and comedians who once played inside TeeGee have stopped by the bar since it reopened, performances and dance nights mostly likely won’t be able to make a comeback until restrictions are lifted in mid-June.

Fortunately, though, TeeGee’s team was able to turn the venue’s parking lot into an outdoor seating area, a process that involved applying for the city’s Al Fresco program, then going through ABC for a temporary catering license on top of building the patio space. “We’re really counting on this patio to keep us going for the next month,” says Ortega.

California’s statewide reopening, set for June 15, may come as a relief for Angelenos who dearly miss their local bars. For the bars, though, it’s a much-needed chance to resume regular business after more than a year of closures, attempted reopenings, and quickly changing regulations.

A kitchen might be considered an advantage for a bar in COVID times, but, for downtown’s Redline, the situation was more complicated. “As a business, we’re more about nightlife and queer performances,” says Redline owner Oliver Alpuche. “We did small bar bites, but we were never equipped to run a real restaurant where COVID restrictions are that every single person has to order food.”

Redline made that effort multiple times during the course of the pandemic. They turned towards to-go orders briefly, then prepared for a July 2020 reopening that didn’t happen. In the fall, they partnered with a restaurant for rooftop dining, but that was shutdown before the holidays. Redline is currently in the midst of a soft reopen that began on May 6.

In the process of all this, they’ve made some adjustments. The bar brought in a chef to develop a menu that works with the size of their kitchen. They’ve retained about 75 percent of their staff—some have changed jobs or moved out of Los Angeles—and have retrained them for restaurant work. Yet, while the yellow tier allows restaurants to reopen at up to 50 percent capacity, the actual capacity is based on how many tables can be spaced out inside the venue. At Redline, capacity was cut from 155 people to 44 people. “That’s already a 66 percent drop of business right there, just right off the bat,” says Alpuche.

In a pandemic that’s already seen the closure of longstanding LGBTQ spaces like Rage in West Hollywood and Oil Can Harry’s in Studio City, Redline has relied on its community to keep pushing through the dark times. Alpuche hadn’t wanted to turn to GoFundMe, but says that his brother convinced him otherwise. While the ongoing fundraising campaign has yet to make its goal, it has motivated Alpuche. “It gave us that fight to know that this place is more than just us. It’s more than a business. It’s home for people,” he says. “We don’t want to take that away from them.”

Certainly, it’s going to take the help of pre-pandemic bar regulars to help these spaces recover. From the sound of it, they’re already rising to the challenge. “I can’t even buy anybody a drink right now,” says Todd Conner. “Anybody I offer to buy a drink is like, nope, we want to support.”

Conner is half of the husband-and-wife team Heart to Heart Bars, which owns the Offbeat in Highland Park and karaoke spot the Good Nite in North Hollywood. While the latter is closed until June, The Offbeat reopened about six weeks prior to this interview, thanks to the venue’s parking lot-turned-outdoor patio. [Disclosure: The author has DJed at the Offbeat in the past.]

“We thought we were going to be open last year, so we did start to already plan the patio,” says Conner. Even after Los Angeles hit the yellow tier, that outdoor space has been a lifesaver for the Offbeat. Conner says that they likely wouldn’t have been able to reopen without it. “Thirty-five guests in our bar would have been fighting a losing battle,” he says. “I would still be closed.”

While June 15 certainly won’t mark the end of the pandemic, it may be the beginning of a period of recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. For bars, that might be a longer journey. Conner estimates it could take a year to a year-and-a-half to recover. Alpuche estimates that it might take close to three years.

Since reopening, Conner says that the bar’s old crowd has been returning. “They just want to see the staff again,” he says. “They want to see their favorite DJs, hear their favorite music, and have the camaraderie that we used to have.”

In fact, Conner says that he’s surprised at how quickly the crowd has returned and attributes it to Los Angeles’ general willingness to get vaccinated.

He says, “It seems like L.A. really worked hard to get through this thing.”

RELATED: Precinct and Redline Bolstered DTLA’s Gay Nightlife Scene. Now They’re Fighting to Survive

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.