The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on small businesses, and in Los Angeles, gay nightlife spots have been particularly hard hit. In West Hollywood, Flaming Saddles, Gold Coast, Rage, and Gym Bar have all permanently closed since bars were shut down last March. Oil Can Harry’s, a Studio City landmark, announced in January that it was shuttering for good after 52 years. And in Silver Lake, popular hangouts Akbar and the Eagle are hanging on by the skin of their teeth with the help of fundraising campaigns.
In downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood that’s been transformed by the pandemic and the flight of foot traffic, the queer bar scene is on life support.
Before the pandemic, the bar-restaurant Redline was thriving and getting ready to celebrate its fifth anniversary. “For me, that was a huge milestone,” says owner Oliver Alpuche. “When you start a new business, especially a bar or restaurant, they are like, ‘you’re lucky if you survive two.’”
In 2015, downtown was experiencing a renaissance. The newly erected Broad Museum joined the MOCA and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to bolster Grand Avenue’s status as L.A.’s growing cultural center. Trendy new restaurants like Eggslut were attracting hipster brunch crowds. The United Artists Building was refurbished to become the Ace Hotel, a millennial hotspot for poolside Sunday Fundays. DTLA’s revival also brought a trio of gay bars: Precinct, Redline, and Bar Mattachine (which shuttered in 2018), all of which joined the New Jalisco, a queer Latinx landmark that’s been in critical condition during the pandemic.
“I always loved downtown,” says Alpuche. “I fell in love with the community. Everyone had each others’ backs. You know everyone who works in the shops. You meet on the rooftops for dinner. It was a great feeling, but there were no queer spaces. That’s what drove me to open a bar. I wanted to create a community space for all the gays to come together and meet.”
Community has been what’s saved Redline. By forming a symbiotic relationship with their neighboring restaurant Poppy + Rose, it’s adapted to the bar shutdown by transitioning to a rooftop pop-up. They also launched a GoFundMe that’s raised upward of $37,000.
“Poppy + Rose have a very flexible landlord who was willing to let them use the rooftop space,” Alpuche explains. “They came to us and said, ‘We go this approved, but we know you don’t have the same opportunity.’ Their business is 9 to 3 during the day, they do a brunch service. They were like, ‘We’re not using it at night. Would you like to do a pop-up?’”
This current iteration of Redline features a breathtaking view of the city and, of course, a number of COVID safety restrictions to keep everyone safe when they gather. Rows of picnic tables are spaced six feet apart; patrons must wear masks, except when seated; and live performances are prohibited, including Redline’s signature drag shows.
“It’s temporary,” admits Alpuche, “but we’re fortunate to have an outlet to do something.”
Neighboring queer bar Precinct hasn’t been quite so lucky. “We’ve been flat-out closed,” says owner Brian McIntire. “We don’t have any plans to open while we’re in the Red Tier. I’m fully expecting another shut down, because cases are spiking all over the country, and the city or county will say indoor dinning is no longer allowed.” Los Angeles County moved into the Orange Tier—which allows bars to reopen for outdoor service—on Wednesday, March 31, but delayed further reopenings until April 5.
Like Redline, Precinct was thriving up until the pandemic forced bars to shutter.
“We were doing really good. It’s just so depressing,” McIntire laments. “We were very fortunate that we didn’t have the traditional one- to two-year curse that most bars and restaurants have.
McIntire continues, “We were able to open our bar on our own. We had a little bit help from family, but we didn’t have to take out any loans. So we had zero debt when we opened. We were operating in the black. We were in a very comfortable position when Covid rolled around: money in our checking accounts, we didn’t owe any vendors for anything. All that we had were rent and utilities. We’d pay for all our food and liquor as it was delivered. We were in a really good spot.”
Despite this foot up, Precinct is worried the pandemic could be its death knell. Both Precinct and Redline have averted eviction due to a county moratorium, but are on the hook for their full rent, even though they haven’t been able to host guests in those spaces for over a year.
“How is it OK that we have a mandatory shutdown, we have to shut down our business, but we have to pay full rent on a space we can’t use?” Alpuche asks. “It’s all back-owed money. They’re not going to evict us yet, but we still owe every single penny.”
According to the county’s regulations, “Commercial tenants with nine or fewer employees will have up to 12 months following the end of the Moratorium Period to repay any past due payments. Commercial tenants with 10 but less than 100 employees will have up to six months following the end of the moratorium to pay back any past due rent in equal payments unless you have made prior arrangements with the property owner.”
As COVID conditions improve and the county continues to allow businesses to reopen, Alpuche is optimistic.
“Redline, Precinct, we have a fighting spirit,” he says. “We are going to survive this by any means necessary.”
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