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

N.C. musician Sonny Miles is miles from where he started

By Macy Meyer

A call from his best friend woke Jordan Williams.

“Dude, check your phone right now!”

After hanging up, Jordan scrolled through the dozens of text messages that littered his phone’s home screen. “This better be good,” he thought. Jordan, a notorious night owl, stayed up into the morning hours to work on his music the previous night. He unlocked his phone, opened his messages and his heart jumped. He stood up straight from his bed, heart pounding against his chest like a drum.

There, Jordan saw his stage name, Sonny Miles, sandwiched between J. Cole and Migos on former President Barack Obama’s “Favorite Music of 2019” playlist posted on Twitter that morning.

Jordan was stunned. The song, “Raleighwood Hills,” only had a few hundred streams on Spotify. He was just a kid from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was on a list with some of his idols. He could not fathom how Obama had found the song.

“It was very much insane because I was like, ‘I’m the only person on this list I don’t know,’” Jordan said.

The day was filled with phone calls, congratulatory texts and delighted screams. It felt like recognition that was well-overdue. It felt like an affirmation of his dream to be a musician.

Planting his roots

Normally, elementary-aged kids in church on a Sunday morning would be zoning out, or even trying to sneak a quick nap. Not Jordan. He couldn’t help but stare at the church’s drummer — it mesmerized him.

Jordan’s dad, Stephen, sang for the choir at the Christ Cathedral Church of Deliverance in Winston-Salem, which meant Jordan was expected to be present every Wednesday and Sunday, and sometimes days in between. While Jordan appreciated the choir’s performances each week, it was the rhythms and the syncopation of the drummer that made the boy sit up a little straighter in the pew.

Music was always around for him. As a 5-year-old, Jordan would grab his father’s Walkman, pop in Fred Hammond’s “Purpose By Design” and ride his bike to the tune of the gospel track for hours around his garage. He’d listen to the rhythms of the drum on the tape and then analyze the choir drummer the next day at church. “I always studied music before I even practiced it,” Jordan said.

One day, he approached the church’s drummer after the sermon, hoping to get his hands on the wooden drum sticks and a tutorial. Usually, he was told no, but sometimes he wasn’t. It didn’t matter because Jordan was already hooked on drums.

“That was the root,” Jordan said. “I would be nothing without religion or at least without the faction of church.”

Sophomore year of high school, those roots grew. Jordan’s mom, Calya, would go to bed early for her job as a teacher. With the house silent, Jordan would grab his mom’s laptop and his newly acquired iPod Classic and download music until 2 or 3 a.m.

Night after night Jordan would research his favorite musicians and their favorite musicians, and study old Rolling Stone magazine articles to learn more about the retro artists who soundtracked his youth.

As a student of music, his next assignment was a live performance. It was in the auditorium of Mount Tabor High School during a live performance of the musical “Godspell” when his fate was sealed.

“I just felt like I could do it,” Jordan said. So, he headed to a pawn shop to buy a guitar and learned to sing.

Stepping from stone to stone

Years later in 2016, when critically acclaimed rapper and singer T.I. dapped him up after a performance, Jordan knew he was onto something.

After performing a 30-minute set for PackHOWL, N.C. State University’s annual homecoming concert, Jordan didn’t expect the three-time Grammy Award winner to approach him backstage at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. He especially didn’t expect T.I. to say he enjoyed Jordan’s performance.

“He really tore the stage up that night,” Daniel Maxwell, longtime friend and bassist, said. “I was in awe of how he handled the situation. This was probably one of the biggest performances we had done in that time in our lives.

“The shock and nervousness was there, but once we got on stage, I could see he was right at home.”

T.I.’s compliment is still what stands out for Jordan. It stands out as the moment the college junior realized his music could get noticed by charting artists.

“It was definitely the stepping stone,” Jordan said.

Jordan was practicing twice a week for three hours and performing three times a week with his a cappella group, The Grains of Time.

As an undergraduate student, communications was his major, but music was his love and his devotion. In between class and practice, he was producing his own music, gaining attention across campus from the student body, booking slots at shows and honing his craft — despite being a self-taught music producer.

Kai McNeil, a close friend of Jordan’s, said he was always walking around N.C. State’s campus with a guitar — he said music is always present when Jordan is around.

In those days, Jordan was just becoming who he is now: Sonny Miles.

He knew he wanted to be soulful like the jazz records his grandfather, Cleave, played. He knew he wanted to have a timeless sound like artists Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis, who inspired his stage name. He was developing his distinct sound and working to become Sonny Miles.

“‘It’s about damn time'”

Shakilya Lawrence almost dropped her phone when Jordan said he had been recognized by former President Obama.

Jordan’s longtime partner always knew the song — a collaboration with LesTheGenius and Jaxson Free — was good, but for the independent, N.C.-based artists to get presidential recognition was what she called an “unexpected blessing.”

“I was over the moon for them,” Lawrence said. “I knew Jordan’s recognition would come at some point and I’m just glad it came from that level.”

After begging to be taught drums; dedicating a summer to learning guitar; spending hours learning to mix music; studying music instead of sleeping and dreaming of recognition like this since childhood: this was the break Jordan needed.

Jordan’s closest supporters believe the recognition was not just needed, but earned.

“I felt a combination of giddiness and ‘it’s about damn time,’” Maxwell said.

And they know it’s only the beginning for him.

“Jordan is very ahead of his time and the music industry has to catch up to him,” Lawrence said. “I know he’s always had a very progressive sound, a very forward-thinking, dynamic sound.”

“I’ve been telling him this since I met him that it’ll happen soon. I know it will,” she added.

There is a strangeness to being around someone right on the brink of greatness and knowing deep down that person could one day walk the red carpet at the Grammy Awards, but that’s how fans of Sonny Miles feel.

“That was just the beginning cusp of what he’s able to do and will do as an artist,” McNeil said. “If you want to be ahead of the curve, know him now.”


Edited By Brandon Standley