North Carolina bars won’t let COVID-19 bar them from being open

By Suzanne Blake

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, on any weekend night, The Crunkleton — a bar on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill — would be full of people drinking, laughing and connecting.

That was before the pandemic, even though for the bar’s co-owner, Gary Crunkleton, it seems like only yesterday that everything changed.

But last year, the bar — which is known for its classy, old-timey feel, with historic paintings and taxidermic animal heads mounted on the walls — became a ghost town for 54 weeks.

North Carolina bars, like The Crunkleton, have fought to stay afloat in a time that demanded their closures. With the spread of a virus that thrives off the human nature of strangers being close to each other in indoor spaces, bars had to get creative in how they adapted in the now of COVID-19.

The Crunkleton originally opened in 2008 and over time became a Franklin Street mainstay until North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all restaurants and bars closed in March, as coronavirus case numbers increased and hospitals neared capacity.

Crunkleton didn’t intend on owning a bar as a career. As an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, bartending was just the best, legal way to make a lot of money in a short period of time.

Crunkleton said he thought he’d become a lawyer.

But he was wait-listed for law school on account of his law school aptitude test being two points too low. Then he met his now-wife, Megan, and fell in love. Crunkleton was more excited about being with her than retaking the LSAT, so naturally, they decided to open a bar.

“I like bringing people together,” Crunkleton said. “I like to keep a place where it’s jovial and alcohol brings out the good stuff in all of us, not the bad.”

The Crunkleton survived the past year in part because of Megan’s full time job. The bar also received two Paycheck Protection Program loans to help pay their employees and rent. Orange County and North Carolina also gave The Crunkleton grants to keep paying rent.

Not all small businesses were as lucky. According to Yelp, nearly 100,000 businesses permanently closed in the U.S. during the pandemic.

Everybody was guessing

The Raleigh Times, located in the heart of downtown Raleigh, operates as both a restaurant and bar and has served the community for 15 years. The restaurant’s owner, Greg Hatem, has been tracking the coronavirus since January 2020 and began preparing internally for it early. The restaurant — well before shutdowns began — had started separating tables to allow for social distancing.

When Cooper’s restrictions began on March 17, Hatem wasn’t shocked. Though it seemed drastic to him, Hatem understood the need to contain COVID-19’s spread.

Hartem ramped up e-commerce for the restaurant — and began offering options delivery through DoorDash — which he attributes to saving the business.

Hatem had a meeting with all of his employees before shutdowns began, offering other jobs through his business line at Empire Properties to his restaurant workers. But then the whole world came to a halt, he said. So, communication with his employees on what they wanted to do was vital.

Once unemployment benefits were boosted $600 a week, it was hard to convince some employees to stay.

Hatem said his businesses then struggled to both maintain employees and prevent the spread of the virus. Hatem said he initially didn’t know the best way to prevent the spread of the virus or what the government would do to support businesses. Everybody was guessing, including him.

But keeping customers safe was of the utmost importance in their reopening plan, Hatem said.

“That was rule No. 1—how do we keep each other safe, and if we can do that, we’ll keep our guests,” Hatem said. “And we never deviated from that.”

Hatem was tormented between how to get his business going and how to keep customers safe. So, they embraced the three Ws: wear, wait and wash. 

The Raleigh Times even made their own propaganda-like posters, one of which had an image of Smokey Bear with Anthony Fauci pinned across his head, saying “Only you can prevent COVID-19.”

When the restaurant learned of positive COVID-19 cases among customers or employees, it always felt the responsibility to shut down and clean. Luckily, Hatem said, the restaurant has evaded any internal spread.

Servers at The Raleigh Times stay six feet apart from you and basically “throw the food at you” to protect you, Hatem said.

The Crunkleton has also adopted precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They thoroughly clean all surfaces and have removed bar stools to create smaller areas where people can stay in their groups.

Crunkleton said his patrons so far have been following the three Ws. Many are excited to be back out after a year of mostly drinking at home.

Patrons take precaution

UNC student Jordan Norona has noticed varying levels of precautions at the bars in Chapel Hill and their effectiveness. While he’s felt safer at outdoor bars like He’s Not Here, he acknowledges why many flocked to indoor bars: the cold.

When the government order mandated bars closed, Norona said this pushed forward discussions of customer safety.

“I think that intuitively it made sense,” Norona said. “I think that there needed to be a readjustment.”

In Greensboro, where UNC student Michaela Stutts has been spending her senior year, she’s frequented the local Boxcar Bar + Arcade often. Only occasionally has she witnessed problems with those who don’t wear masks.

“The bouncer has gone up to them and told them to put on masks,” Stutts said. “But they’re doing pretty well.”

Looking toward normal

In working to get back to a more normal environment, Hatem doesn’t understand why people aren’t eagerly going to get vaccinated — it’s a pathway out, he said.

“When I got my first shot, it was monumental,” Hatem said. “You can’t believe that you’ve just done something that is going to put an end to this.”

Crunkleton encourages everyone to be smart and diligent about which places they consider safe to go to during the pandemic, but he wants the community to give bars a chance again.

“I think looking at the science of it all, with the numbers decreasing and the vaccine distribution, I think things are safer than they were,” he said. “I would give us a shot.”


Edited by Brandon Standley