Metro Nashville begins Phase 2 of its reopening process Monday, May 25. As business owners prepare for what’s to come, the owners and staff behind Nashville's gay bars are hyper-focused on keeping their "safe spaces" as safe as possible for the LGBTQI community amid the invisible threat of COVID-19. For some, that means staying closed for now.
“They aren’t patrons, they aren’t customers, they’re my family,” said Christa Suppan, owner of The Lipstick Lounge. “The building is sad and empty without them.”
Still recovering from damage caused by a one of a series of deadly tornadoes that tore through Nashville on March 3, the owners of The Lipstick Lounge made a painful decision not to reopen during Phase 2. Suppan said that while her heart aches to see her family return to the iconic bar in East Nashville, their safety is the most important concern.
Venturing Out? Find out when Nashville's queer-friendly bars are opening (and what you can expect when you get there) in this quick read.
“With the guidelines put forth by Metro Nashville, and the current status of the COVID-19 crisis, opening at ¾ capacity while social distancing will not even allow us to break even on the costs of operating,” Suppan said. “More importantly, I couldn’t take it if someone came back in and got sick. We have to make this decision responsibly.”
According to a recent study conducted by Greggor Mattson, associate professor of Sociology at Oberlin college, The Lipstick Lounge is one of only 16 lesbian bars left in major cities around the country, a number that has been in steady decline since the year 2000.
According to Metro Nashville’s guidelines for reopening during the pandemic, bars with the classification of “restaurant/bar” are allowed to offer dine-in service at ¾ capacity beginning Monday, May 25, as part of Phase 2. However, the bar area must remain closed. With the size of the dining area of the Lipstick Lounge (not including the patio still in repair from the damage caused by the tornado), Suppan said it is almost mathematically impossible to practice social distancing at her location while hosting enough patrons to make staying open worth the expense.
Then there’s the fear of the second wave, she added.
“I have done everything I can to keep us open, and when we reopen, we have one shot to get it right,” Suppan said. “If we open up, and a second wave hits, and we are required to close again, I fear we wouldn’t survive that.”
The Lipstick Lounge, which opened 18 years ago this September, has long been a safe haven both for members of the LGBTQ+ community and for their allies.
“We’ve never done this for the money,” Suppan said. “The past two decades have been a labor of love. I miss my friends terribly. I know their stories. I know their joy, and their pain. It’s very personal to me.”
When the bar closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Suppan quickly cut unnecessary expenses in order to conserve funds to reopen. Approximately 50% of the bar’s staff have found jobs to carry them through this time. The other half have filed for unemployment.
Suppan said even though she doesn’t feel right about opening at this time, she supports other LGBTQ+ bar owners who are doing what is right for them. Owners like Steven Kiss of Trax, who decided to open during Phase One.
“Trying to pay our bills and helping our staff who have been out of work, that’s the hardest,” Kiss said. “At this time, if you feel comfortable and your health permits it, come out. If not, just know that we’re here for you. When we’re able to see you again, we’d love to, but do what’s best for you.”
Kiss said the Bianca Paige Board, Team Friendly and the Conductors have all raised money for the staff at Trax to help them stay afloat during the crisis. Since reopening, Trax is bringing in approximately half of its prior sales. With the patio, back area and front area spaced out and tables at a safe distance apart, the restaurant is able to hold about 42 people at a time. Although ¾ of their capacity comes out to about 63 people, Kiss says they will remain at 42 during Phase 2.
Under Metro’s reopening guidelines, customers may not order directly from the bar, but must order drinks from their table. To accommodate this change, the staff at Pecker’s, which is set to open this Friday, will train over the next few days to work as servers rather than bartenders in the interim.
Pecker’s owner Mike Brown said he is holding off on drag shows or karaoke temporarily as more information comes in.
“We have a lot of patio space and are really looking forward to seeing everyone again,” Brown said. “The building has been thoroughly cleaned and we are getting ready to see everyone again.”
While Play Dance Bar will remain closed until a later phase of the re-opening, owners Joe Brown and Todd Roman are preparing to reopen Tribe this Wednesday. Suzy Wong’s House of Yum is open now for carryout, Thursday through Sunday, and the dining area will reopen this Wednesday. Suzy Wong’s will also be open for Drag Brunch next weekend.
Joe Brown said Tribe will be hosting scheduled drag shows, but with a few changes to allow for social distancing. Drag queens will perform from the stage area without masks as usual, but they will not be able to interact with the audience during performances for now. Customers won’t be allowed to hand cash tips to performers, but instead will be able to tip via cash-transfer apps such as Venmo. When not on stage, performers will be required to wear masks.
“We love our family, and we just want everyone to hang in there,” Joe Brown said. “Keep your head up until we’re out of this. We want everyone to know that we’re here for them, and we are doing everything we can to keep them safe.”
Capacity at Suzy Wong’s will be limited to 50 people and capacity at Tribe will be approximately 100. The owners encourage people to make reservations in advance and plan to share a new reservation link through their social media channels.
Canvas will open Tuesday, from 4 p.m. to midnight, with a capacity of around 40 people. General Manager Seth Thomas said the staff is taking additional precautions in an effort to help avoid a second wave of the pandemic as much as they can.
“The building has been sanitized from top to bottom and there will be a special focus on sanitizing areas after an individual has been there,” Thomas said. “If there is a second outbreak, it will not be because Canvas wasn’t efficient in keeping our customers safe.”
Reservations will be required, he said, and customers and staff must have their temperature checked via a forehead thermometer before entering the bar. More information about how to reserve a table will be provided through their social media.
Staff will be required to wear masks and Canvas-branded masks will be available for customers who request them, Thomas said. Karaoke will be temporarily on hold and the dance floor won’t reopen until a later phase.
“We will deal with this developing crisis as it comes,” Thomas said. “Our decisions will not be driven by fear, but an overabundance of caution and concern for the safety of the public.”
While business leaders like Suppan are longing to once again make available their safe spaces for LGBTQI patrons and their allies, they are doing so with an abundance of caution, concern, and care for their customers who, Suppan said, are more like family.
“For the past twenty years, our people have been a part of me,” Suppan said. “When you walked into the room before, you could feel the love in it. The Lipstick Lounge is empty right now, but we will feel that love again, and we will be safe when we do. I love our family, and they will always come first.”
You can support these locally-owned LGBTQI-friendly businesses by making donations. Here’s how...
- To support The Lipstick Lounge, donors can purchase t-shirts HERE.
- Donations can be made to support staff at Trax directly at the location.
- Donations can be made to support staff at Play, Tribe and Suzy Wong’s House of Yum HERE.
- Donations can be made to support staff at Pecker’s HERE.
- Donations can be made to support staff at Canvas HERE.
This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.