Bar Owners Frustrated Anew as Restrictions Return

Tony Charmello, owner of the Snug, says he doesn’t let anyone else clean the pub. He can’t afford to.
A couple of times a week, he drives from his home near Los Angeles International Airport to Burbank to dust the surfaces or do some repainting at the Snug. Some of his eight employees offered to do the cleaning for him, but Charmello declined. With bars like his closed throughout Los Angeles County and beyond, he doesn’t have the revenue to pay them.
“I feel very sorry for anybody who’s lost their life [from the coronavirus],” he said in a phone interview, “But … I don’t think we can stay closed forever, because a lot of places are going to be in financial hurt, and I’m starting to feel that way a little bit.”
A brief glimmer of hope appeared in June, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that after months of mandated closure to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, bars could reopen, with some restrictions.
Soon, Charmello’s phone was ringing with people wanting to know when the Snug would open — and he got to work. He contacted the county health department for advice on how to reopen safely, installing Plexiglas barriers and reducing seating at the bar from 15 chairs to five.
“To be honest with you, I was happy to come to work, because you can play [only] so much solitaire on the computer,” he said. “I mean, the first two weeks, it was nice and relaxing and all, but after months, the mailman still comes with bills.”
But just when it looked as if the Snug could finally begin accepting patrons again, another California health order went out on June 28. Due to rising coronavirus cases, Newsom ordered bars to close in several counties — including L.A.

Photo by Christian Leonard / The Leader
John Samarjian, owner of the Blue Room in Burbank, says that he has lost roughly $200,000 in revenue due to mandatory closures of his bar during the coronavirus pandemic.

John Samarjian, owner of the Blue Room bar, said he would rather have stayed closed than be allowed to reopen for only nine days. But he added that, since he owns the property, he’s in a relatively better situation than many other bar owners are.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t facing difficulty. Samarjian, who has worked at the family-owned bar since he was in his 20s, said it took nearly six years after the 2008 recession for his business to return to normal. He fears that recovering from the economic impact of COVID-19 will take longer.
“It’s more emotional and fear-based,” he said. “It’s people being afraid to be around people.”
He estimates that he has lost roughly $200,000 in revenue from being closed, and said that while he understands the challenges of the pandemic and the need to keep everyone healthy, he wishes authorities would be more resolute about their decisions.
As he puts it, if he ran his bar the way they run the state, he’d be out of business.

While the Snug and the Blue Room are closed indefinitely, some bars have been given the OK to reopen ― though not as bars. If the business has an on-site kitchen, it is considered a restaurant and therefore can remain open for outdoor dining. Alcohol, though, must be served with food.
“I think we’ve all learned how to stay pretty agile and up to date with all of the changes,” Dan Shapiro, manager of marketing and public relations for the Artisanal Brewers Collective, said in a phone interview.
The ABC restaurant group includes Tony’s Darts Away, a Burbank pub that serves burgers and sausages. For the past few weeks, Shapiro explained, the business has served customers entirely on its patio, using an app to manage orders and transactions, cutting down on unnecessary interaction between patrons and servers.
“We have just been stunned by the support of the community,” Shapiro said by phone. “It’s really great to see that people are supporting the local establishments, and they want to see that these places survive — and we want to survive for them.”
But even though Tony’s is one of the pubs that are still serving customers in Burbank, it has also had its fair share of financial challenges. Its 10-year anniversary came and went during the shutdown, Shapiro said the business has had to make concessions with landlords.
“It’s a fight for survival, to be frank,” he explained.

Photo courtesy Tony’s Darts Away
While some bars, such as Tony’s Darts Away, can remain open as restaurants because of their on-site kitchens, even these are under strict health orders limiting how many patrons they can seat.

There are, however, some financial lifeboats sent out by local and federal sources. Burbank City Manager Justin Hess issued an emergency order on July 2 potentially allowing some restaurants like Tony’s Darts Away to expand seating options.
On July 4, President Donald Trump signed legislation extending the application deadline for the Paycheck Protection Program, which issues forgivable loans to small businesses, to Aug. 8.
Some aid has come from local employers. Samarjian said he gave $1,000 to each of his approximately eight workers to give them a bit of extra stability.
But programs can be limited, especially with so many businesses looking for aid. A federally funded Burbank initiative giving loans to small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic started accepting applications on June 29 — and hit its 100-application cap 36 hours later.
Charmello said he wishes the situation could return to normal and he could go back to working and going to ballgames. But with bars closed, and Burbank’s loan program having reached its application limit before he could sign up, he said the Snug needs help.
“We’re in the hole,” he said. “And we need a ladder to get out.”