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To be (open) or not to be

The outside of IMBIB Custom Brews in Reno. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Let me be clear: this is not an anti-mask rant, a plea to remove COVID-19 safety standards, or an attack on restaurants. It is an argument to allow businesses such as mine to reopen under the same standards as other similar industries — and restaurants happen to be the best comparable example.

You see, breweries, bars, and wineries in Washoe County (and Clark, Nye, and Elko) have not been allowed to operate as such since March, other than a two-week window in June. That sliver of time was not long enough to tie any COVID-19 outbreaks to our industry with real evidence beyond some viral photos. Not all bars and taprooms are created equal, but some of the businesses in those viral photos that were clearly violating COVID-19 restrictions are still open…because they have full kitchens.  

When this pandemic really started to hit our state, most business owners were ready to do the right thing to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including bars and taprooms. My business, a brewery in Reno, was happy to move to a “to-go” only model until we understood this virus better. As time went on, we patiently waited for our opportunity to open again and demonstrate how we can limit risk. That opportunity has never been presented and now our patience has run out — some in our industry plan to permanently shut down in the near future. Even with a small amount of help from the federal government early in the pandemic, most will not survive much longer with little to no revenue.

If you have been in a restaurant recently, it is not very hard to imagine how a bar or brewery taproom could offer the same level of safety for customers and perhaps even go beyond what some restaurants are doing. So, what is the difference? Why are restaurants so much safer than a bar or taproom? Is it the alcohol? No! Plenty of restaurants serve alcohol and do not require you to purchase food to have a drink. Is it that eating keeps you from getting intoxicated? No! It can slow intoxication, but responsible bar and restaurant owners regulate alcohol consumption regardless as our licenses and concern for liability require us to do so. In fact, many bars and taprooms do offer hot food and snacks; we just do not have full kitchens. This one distinction does not and would not prevent bars and taprooms from complying with restrictions. A logical person might even conclude that having bars and taprooms reopen with strict safety standards will help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. More options means people can not only spread out more, but they can have a drink in a regulated environment. Compare this to large private gatherings and house parties where there is clear evidence showing these activities are contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in Washoe County.

More than a month ago, Gov. Sisolak announced a change of plans in how the state would address mitigation of COVID-19 — by establishing a task force to work with counties on plans and enforcement. In his remarks, he insisted that “We can do both: we can mitigate the spread and avoid harming businesses that are doing their part, but only if we all commit to it.” Yet our industry continues to be punished with no option to conduct regular business with safety standards like restaurants. This barrier to conducting business has created a situation where some businesses are reaping the benefits of the rest of our industry being closed and the decreased competition. This simply goes against the free-market ideals and competitive spirit that this nation was built on, and the policy is indeed harming our industry despite the glimmer of hope that the governor’s statement provided us.  

Our industry has been doing everything in its power to work with local and state government officials to find a way to reopen. Here in Washoe County, we have built a growing coalition of more than 30 bar and taproom owners who have agreed to abide by a strict set of detailed standards (far more detail than anything in place for restaurants at this time). More importantly, members of this coalition have agreed to hold one another accountable when intentional violations are occurring. That is not something any other industry has agreed to do, but we will do it because we cannot afford to let anyone jeopardize our ability to stay open. The cities of Reno and Sparks, and Washoe County have praised this idea and the governor’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force at their most recent meeting also acknowledged this as an approach that other counties should consider — yet the opportunity to demonstrate this in action has still not been granted. (In a normal year, we would generally provide product and monetary donations to local nonprofits on a weekly basis, but we can no longer afford to give back to the community if we cannot conduct business.)

The idea that all bars are created equal and that there is no way to regulate customers in a bar environment is a fallacy. Yes, crowded bars with no restrictions will certainly contribute to the spread of COVID-19, but for most of us the appropriate restrictions will be easy to implement. Just as restaurants are open and serving alcohol, we want all bars to be given a chance to reopen, and those who cannot abide by the rules should most certainly face consequences. We are ready. It is time to give us a fighting chance.

Matt Johnson is president of the Nevada Craft Brewers Association and is part of the Washoe County Bar/Taproom Coalition.

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