A month ago, Nevada City’s Commercial Street seemed like it was back to its revelrous ways. There were sold out concerts and impatient lines outside. Friends hugged and strangers kissed and danced, celebrating a year of lost contact and renewed optimism. As the sun went down during the Hot Summer Nights Street Festival, forty hippies gathered in a close circle outside of Three Forks Brewery and Bakery as customers sipped beer and ate pizza. You would have never guessed what August had in store. But here we are.
Since the first week of July, COVID cases have increased 1200 percent. Currently, there are 649 active cases in Nevada County, with 443 new cases occurring in the past ten days. During the first weekend of August, 25 patients were admitted to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. Previous peak hospitalization numbers last winter topped out at 15.
Throughout the pandemic, one sector has been hit especially hard when COVID cases rise: restaurants and bars. This time is no different. The past handful of weeks have seen scores of dining and drinking establishments shut down in Grass Valley and Nevada City, either because of sick employees or out of an abundance of caution. Whereas last summer these same businesses were shut down by state and county mandates, now the closures are purely voluntary. And they couldn’t come at a worse time: Federal restaurant loan programs have dried up, and local hiring challenges have left many of these businesses severely short-staffed.
Kate Anderson owns the Crazy Horse Bar and Grill in Nevada City. On Thursday, they reopened after a two week shutdown after eight staffers tested positive for COVID. It happened after multiple weeks of busy street fairs and packed after-party concerts hosted at The Crazy Horse.
“People on the internet were saying that our shows were ‘superspreader events’, and I can take that blame,” said Anderson. “But I was just trying to run my business. The music we do is a huge part of that.”
Anderson said she feels she’s in an impossible situation: starting up shows quickly after the end of the mask mandate was necessary for her struggling business, but she says she realizes it may have been too much too fast. Though her staff wore masks and half were vaccinated, the patrons were another matter.
“Alcohol and COVID don’t mix,” she said. “When people start drinking they just forget [COVID] is a thing.”
Now reopened, Anderson is being extra cautious. She’s hiring a host to seat customers, and is asking patrons to keep masks on when not eating. She also cancelled shows through September.
The Brick, a bar and music venue across the street from the Crazy Horse, also closed two weeks ago after COVID spread amongst staff and patrons. Management has stated publicly that they will open again on August 16th.
Restaurants are shutting down too.
Sushi in the Raw, a popular Nevada City date night spot, was shut down all last week but has since reopened. According to one server, no employees tested positive for COVID. Rather, the decision to close came after two employees admitted to being in close contact with COVID-positive individuals. After both tested negative, the restaurant is back on its feet.
In Grass Valley, Thirsty Barrel Taphouse and Grill has also temporarily closed. Owner Craig Davis made the decision after a staff member contracted COVID. Davis is asking all staff to get tested prior to re-opening.
“We’ve been trying to follow county guidelines as best as we can throughout this,” said Davis. “Again we’re in a very stressful situation. It’s very hard on the business.”
Davis had received federal loan payments earlier in the year, which helped him keep the business alive. But he’s unsure if he’ll be able to survive another shutdown, especially as the fund has gone dry. He’s also dealing with a shortage of workers. You can hear the strain in Davis’ voice as he talks about their current situation.
“A lot of businesses are doing the right thing and protecting their staff and others don’t seem to be very concerned,” said Davis. “I would say 2021 has been harder than last year.”
Robin Bickman, owner of Old Town Cafe in Grass Valley, could be described as “not very concerned.” He has been an outspoken critic of state and county shut down mandates since the pandemic’s onset.
Bickman allows his staff and customers to decide for themselves if they want to wear masks, though none were choosing to do so the recent Wednesday morning I was there. He says he isn’t worried about the increase in cases, or the Delta variant.
“If a lot of us get sick then yeah we’ll close,” he said. “Last year people were getting tested and we didn’t have one positive test.”
For Bickman, the most important value for his business to uphold is the rights of individuals to make their own choices.
“You can choose to eat here. You can choose not to eat here. You can wear a mask or you cannot wear a mask,” said Bickman. “But you cannot come in here and tell me to close my business while grocery stores, liquor stores and whatever else remain open as essential.”