Better Days is a modest dive bar with a pool table and a tiny backyard crease in the heart of Austin, Texas. Like many watering holes in the state, Better Days was given the green light to reopen last May, long before many patrons were even close to becoming vaccinated. That’s why 32-year-old bartender Isaac French felt like he was entering the line of fire when he went back to work.
Sure, he enforced all the Covid-19 rules and regulations as best he could, but procedural conduct tends to fade into the background once second and third rounds of drinks circulate through a crowd. The masks come off, the table mates huddle together, and for much of his time as a pandemic bartender, French expected to get sick. But after being out of work for months, that seeming inevitability was preferable to staying broke.
In many parts of the country, as vaccinations become increasingly available, Americans are just now getting accustomed to bellying up to bar settings again. New York allowed bars and restaurants to reopen at full capacity on May 19, and finally removed its midnight curfew on the May 31.
But in other states like Texas, Tennessee, and Florida, those restrictions were never so stringent. That means someone like French had plenty of experience serving drinks during the absolute bleakest months of the pandemic. We talked about the anxiety he felt after receiving the call to go back to work, what it’s like to kick out anti-maskers, and how the nightlife mood is changing in Austin now that he, and many of his patrons, are vaccinated.
What do you remember about your last shift before the pandemic?
My last shift was a Wednesday. I remember everyone talking about Covid at the bar. We were asking, “Is a shutdown gonna happen?” A lot of us were like, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” I thought it could happen, but at the time I was like, “Whatever, it’s busy. I’ll deal with a shutdown when it happens.” Sure enough, two days later, the shutdown came down.
What did you hear from management? How were you planning on keeping money coming in?
I was pretty stressed. It’s a small dive bar, owned by two owners and their wives. I was like, “Oh, this isn’t good.” You talk yourself into the break being like two weeks, or maybe a month. The managers are stressed, because bars never close down. That never happens. I was like, “We’ll figure it out, we’ll be fine.”
But I thought there was a good 60 to 70 percent chance that it was going to close permanently during the pandemic.
When did you guys open back up during the pandemic? When were you allowed to go back to work?
It was early summer, but I don’t remember the exact date. We’re a very small staff. It’s just me, my boss, and one other bartender. We took the opportunity to clean the place up, and we did some online Facebook donation drives. But we waited for a good while, like two weeks, after we were allowed to reopen before we did. But eventually my boss was just like, “Hey, we have to open up.” I was like, “That’s fine, let’s do it.”
You had been living through a pandemic for a while at that point. It must’ve felt pretty crazy to be serving drinks inside.
I was very nervous. I still take Covid very seriously. So do my bosses. We were like, “What can we do?” We decided to be very strict. And that’s tough. Sometimes it’s just me at the bar. We don’t have a door guy. Obviously I didn’t want to get sick, and of course one of our bartenders got Covid the third week back in. So we had to shut down again for another two weeks. I never got it, and I’m double-vaxxed now.
How seriously are the people still going to bars during the heat of the pandemic taking Covid-19? Are they throwing caution to the wind?
I’d say it’s like half and half. My regulars who came in were super cautious. They come in, they’re happy we’re reopened and that they can support us, they’re wearing masks and following all the procedures. Then, of course, there’s the other side: People that don’t understand that regardless of what the state is saying, this is our business and we can tell them what to do.
You have a lot of arguments like that, but one of the bad things about running a bar is once people get drunk, people stop caring and it’s a lot harder to control. After a while, I’m handling so many different things that I can’t babysit everything. You get desensitized.
What’s the first rule that starts to disappear when you hit round two or round three?
Absolutely the masks. People want to sit at the bar. At the time, we had three seats at the bar for social distancing. Then they get drunk, and they start walking around, and now nobody is wearing a mask.
Did you expect to end up catching Covid-19?
100 percent. It got to the point where I had zero dollars in my bank account. I was like, “I either have to get Covid and get this money, or be broke.” I was extremely upset with government leadership. We’re supposed to be essential workers, and they treat us like we’re not essential at all.
People are getting vaccinated. How has that impacted the mood at the bar?
It has been busier, but my bar is like Cheers. I have the same regulars every day. I see them every time I go to work. I have my solid family there. They’re always cool. It only feels weird when new people show up.
We still enforce the masks, and I’ve had people scream at me for that and just leave the bar. It’s funny. A lot of people who were anti-vaxxers are now being like, “Well, I have the vaccine.” And you’re just like, “No you don’t.” I’ve had to kick anti-maskers out. There would be people who’d try to fight us sometimes. I’m like, “You’re this mad? Just go to the bar over there!” That’s another thing you prepare yourself before your shift: How many anti-maskers am I going to have to deal with? I’m good with aggro people. I can kill them with kindness. I say, “Hey, it’s not my rules, I’m just trying to make a dollar,” and they’ll cool down. But some of them don’t!
What did it feel like after vaccination, when you knew you could go to work without worrying about getting sick?
It felt relieving. Every time I went out, even to the grocery store, I’d get nervous. And when you’re corralling drunk people who are screaming in your face, you get more nervous. It’s way less of a burden for me now.
How much are you looking forward to dropping the mask mandate, in a truly post-Covid world, where you can just do your job normally again?
It will feel good. I’m tired of doing that extra babysitting. If you’re a bartender, you babysit. That’s what you do. But with all these restrictions, it’s way more than you’re used to. I’m ready to go back to normal, and to have someone tell me their life story at the bar, without worrying about getting Covid.