Oakland bars find ways to connect with students amid strict COVID-19 rules

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Kaycee Orwig | Assistant Visual Editor

Gene’s Place, a once bustling bar, is now much quieter on the weekends.

By Maura Scrabis, For The Pitt News

What once was a bustling bar filled with hoards of students and longtime regulars, Gene’s Place is now much quieter on the weekends. Eugene Ney, owner of the Louisa Street bar, said he quickly adapted to changing health and safety regulations but still worries about the long-term effects they will have.

“Right now I’m limited to takeout, and in all honesty it’s better now that school’s back, but it’s still only a fraction of what it used to be,” Ney said. “You’ll have some good nights, and you’ll have your bad nights, too, but at least there’s something coming in and it’s covering expenses.”

According to the Pennsylvania Health Department, bar service is currently prohibited, and alcohol may only be served in the same transaction as a meal. Takeout sales of alcohol are also permitted for off-site consumption.

Ney said while specific regulations are making it harder for his business to bring in more revenue, he is thankful he does not have to worry about rent payments.

“I’m actually in some ways very fortunate because I own the building that my bar is in,” Ney said. “But a bar that has to pay rent every month that doesn’t have that money coming in, they’re having some problems, and it’s going to hurt a lot of bars.”

Many bars do not see how they can profit under the ever-changing county and state orders. Popular Oakland spots such as Garage Door Saloon and Hemingway’s Cafe are currently closed. Mario’s Oakland Saloon joins Gene’s Place and Thirsty Scholar in offering takeout drinks, and Bootleggers currently offers outdoor seating options.

Ney and Joanne Chizmar, co-owner of the Thirsty Scholar Bar & Grille, are both hopeful that business will continue to get better now that students have returned to campus. In an effort to continue to attract customers, each have turned to social media. Gene’s Place now offers Trivia On Tap through Zoom every weekend and uses its Twitter account to remind customers of the specials for the day. 

Thirsty Scholar has taken to Instagram to share its weekly offerings, but Chizmar said the bar finds it difficult to plan anything special because of the constant change in regulations.

“[Business] is slowly picking up as the month of September goes on, but we have had a lot of students seem surprised that the bar is open for dine-in service,” Chizmar said. “You can dine in or take out all of our food or beverages, and our cocktails to go are 16-ounce mixed drinks or 32-ounce buckets.”

Ney took the time to modify his business to fit the updated service guidelines and said the health of his workers and customers remains a priority.

“We have lots of hand sanitizer, we’re obviously required to wear masks in the building and we clean the place on a regular basis,” Ney said. “I only have a small space open up for the public, so when people do come in to get takeout, they’re not walking all over the entire bar.”

This has helped customers such as Matt Gerstl, a first-year graduate student studying clinical exercise physiology, to feel completely safe during the ordering and pickup process.

“In my experience, everyone — both the workers and other customers — have been very compliant with corona precautions,” Gerstl said. “I would go back to all of [the bars I ordered from] again.”

Senior nursing major Darien Boerger said she shares the bar owners’ feelings of frustrations and is upset that she cannot frequent businesses in Oakland like she used to in previous school years. She said she has taken advantage of many of the to-go specials from bars around Oakland in an effort to try and support local businesses as often as she can.

“Everything was very quick, and the wait times were accurate, so that made picking up super easy. All the drinks were so yummy, but some of the bars I’ve ordered from only have super large sizes, so I wish there was a smaller size offered that would cost less money,” Boerger said. “I am worried bars that are receiving no business at all won’t see the other side. I hope they all make it.”

Ney said he encourages everyone to keep supporting local businesses to help keep the community thriving.

“I greatly appreciate all of our Pitt students, faculty and staff, and I appreciate their support, but I also encourage them to support the other restaurants and bars in Oakland, too,” Ney said. “We need a vibrant bar community, especially once we get through all of this.”

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