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Bars held back little despite coronavirus on New Year’s Eve in Lakeland

Owners and managers said bars were hit hard by financial shutdowns and need to stay afloat. Besides, they said, people were free to stay at home if they wished.
Soloman Wassef, owner of the cigar bar Lakeland Loft on South Tennessee Avenue, said Thursday that New Year's Eve is the one day people want to go out.
Soloman Wassef, owner of the cigar bar Lakeland Loft on South Tennessee Avenue, said Thursday that New Year's Eve is the one day people want to go out. [ PIERRE DUCHARME | Lakeland Ledger ]
Published Jan. 4

If you were looking to forget all about the coronavirus pandemic on New Year’s Eve, your best bet would have been to visit a Lakeland bar.

At Federal Bar Lakeland on South Tennessee Avenue, for example, the main thing staff adjusted for the 2020 New Year’s Eve celebration was their expectations.

Kara Simm, the bar’s events manager, said it was their third holiday season open and they followed the blueprint of the past: a live band, a DJ, and a complimentary midnight champagne toast. The patio was open, there was no cover charge, and patrons could grab festive gear to wear throughout the night.

Simm knew the pandemic could affect turnout as some may still fear gathering in large groups.

“We don’t expect it to be crazy tomorrow night at all,” Simm said Wednesday.

Related: New Year’s Eve parties crowded Tampa Bay on same day Florida broke coronavirus record

Despite rising cases of the virus in the state, several popular Lakeland bars hosted holiday parties on Thursday in which masks may have been encouraged but weren’t required. While some events stayed the same, others made adjustments for COVID-19 or were canceled altogether. And though some may be critical of the decision, owners and managers said bars were hit hard by financial shutdowns and need to stay afloat. Besides, people were free to stay at home if they wish, they said.

Ahead of the Thursday ragers, Polk County set a COVID-19 record for new daily infections a second straight day, reporting 637 new infections in Thursday’s report. The Florida Department of Health also reported six more Polk County deaths. The positive test rate was 16.06 percent.

The spike follows a disturbing trend: at 320.2 average cases per day in December, Polk County has surpassed its previous high average of 279.5 daily cases in July. And it’s more than double the 147.3 average in November.

While the initial rollout of COVID-19 vaccines have stirred optimism, most members of the general public likely won’t see their doses until well into 2021.

“Well tonight, we are having like what we normally do: a big New Year’s Eve Party,” Soloman Wassef, owner of Lakeland Loft on South Tennessee Avenue, said Thursday.

Like Federal Bar, the Lakeland Loft threw its party like it was any other year. Wassef said he wanted people to be safe and practice social distancing — “if they want to.” While some may criticize those who spent the holiday outside of their homes, Wassef noted going out to ring in the new year is a tradition some are unwilling to give up.

“This is one day people want to go out. They don’t want to cook at the house, they don’t want to wash dishes at the house, they want to go out and be pampered,” Wassef said. “We don’t want to force people to go out, [but] we don’t want to force people to stay in. We want people to practice normal life because this is going to be the norm from now on.”

And some might’ve ventured out to seek catharsis, beaten down by the difficult year. That’s a feeling Brewlands Bar & Billiards on Florida Avenue South tapped into, theming their New Year’s Eve Party around a “funeral” for 2020, complete with a handmade coffin.

Randi Allen, general manager of the bar, said customers could write down whatever they wanted to leave behind in 2021 and have it burned by staff at midnight, signaling a new start for a new year — even if the first few months, at least, will likely look eerily similar to most of 2020.

“They just wanted to bury 2020 and move on and forget about it the best they can,” Allen said. “Are we going to wake up tomorrow and everything’s gonna be completely different? Probably not. But it’s a new year, it’s a new beginning. Let’s try to think positive and move forward.”

Even though many party plans remained largely unchanged, bar owners expected lower turnout than years past. Although bar attendance has experienced a slight uptick in the last few weeks, it’s still nothing compared to last year’s performance, they said.

“We expect it to probably be on the quieter side,” Allen said Thursday. “Which we respect because some people may not feel comfortable going out, and that’s OK.”

The holiday season had already been slower than usual. SantaCon, a popular bar hopper event, failed to be all that jolly.

“It was much quieter this year, you know, than in years past, unfortunately,” Simm with Federal Bar said. “It’s a pandemic year.”

Wassef said he actually had higher participation in SantaCon this year than in the past. But he noted his bar, usually filled with jazz music, attracts an older clientele. For SantaCon, most of the participants he saw were between 25 and 40 and may have spilled over from bars they frequent more often.

While still on, some events looked significantly different than they had in the past in an attempt to make celebrations safer in the COVID-19 era.

Hannah Duling, the assistant manager at Swan Brewing on West Pine Street, said they planned to make New Year’s Eve look like a typical night with the simple additions of free champagne and extended hours until midnight.

“We have a band playing and food trucks, but that’s pretty normal for us on any given day. Really, the champagne toast is the only thing that we’re doing for New Year’s,” Duling said. “I would say we toned it down.”

Plus, while many bars are operating at full capacity, the tap room at Swan Brewing is still capped at 50% while the outdoor patio is fully open.

Union Hall on Florida Avenue South also toned down their event, capping ticket sales for their New Year’s party at 100 for an event space that can fit 250. Manager Parker Duncan said the event in the Champagne Room was “packed” in 2019.

Duncan said that on Wednesday, they’d only sold two tickets. But he noted that people will often show up and pay at the door. So what if way more than 100 people showed up?

“If it’s like busy busy and it starts to get full, I would prefer to cap it just to make everybody feel safe,” Duncan said. “The last thing we want here is someone coming in and this is the last place they were at and they’re like ‘Oh, I got COVID at Union Hall.’”

Duncan said Union Hall staff wear masks and guests are asked to mask up when walking around or at the bar.

Duncan said he didn’t have “high expectations” but hoped to at least get to $500. While before this year the bar would often make between $1,500 and $3,000 on a weekend night, events lately are only bringing in between $300 and $600.

Some events were just canceled altogether. In 2019, Haus 820 hosted a New Year’s Eve party with regular and VIP admission prices in addition to a trolley service that made stops in Dixieland and downtown Lakeland. This year, the space remained dark.

“As a company, we are trying to be mindful of large events at this time,” said venue manager Danielle Skolozynski in an email. “We want to keep the health of our guests and staff at the forefront, so we decided it would not be wise to host our NYE this year.”

For New Year’s Eve, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that if you gathered with someone outside of your home, you wear a mask, stay six feet apart and avoid crowds or poorly ventilated indoor spaces. While many Lakeland bars have outdoor options, the nature of going out and drinking makes mask usage difficult, elevating the risk of spread of COVID-19.

But for those who would critique a bar’s decision to host a pandemic party, those in the business say that they can’t afford to stay closed.

“I think us as a bar, we got hit the hardest out of everybody. And you know, this is our livelihood and this is what we do for work. A lot of us, we can’t just, you can’t like go from the money you’re making as a bartender, all of a sudden to go work at McDonald’s or something like that because you live your life based on the money you make,” Duncan said. “If you don’t want to come out, don’t come out. But we’ve still got to make our living.”

Other bar owners and employees said they were excited to work New Year’s Eve and were not afraid of the risk.

The position can be polarizing. One bar declined to comment for this story, saying they won’t speak about anything COVID-related as “you’re going to piss someone off.”

Business closures and other economic devastation related to COVID-19 have hit restaurants and bars hard. While long-term recovery is still out of reach, perhaps 2021 will bring hope for the industry. It’s the little things: Simm, for example, would like to see the event space at Federal Bar get some love in the new year.

“We’re hoping things pick up in 2021,” she said.

Allen with Brewlands is cautiously optimistic.

“I think once you know, you have a full-fledged like vaccines going out and numbers keep coming down, I think people are going to become more and more comfortable with going out,” Allen said.

- Maya Lora

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