On the last day of July, John Guggenmos stood by the entrance of Number Nine, one of the two gay bars he co-owns in D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood, because he thought his staff might need a little backup. D.C.’s reinstated indoor mask mandate went into effect that morning, and Number Nine was enforcing a new policy that required customers to prove they’d been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19 within the prior three days. Guggenmos wanted to be prepared to defuse any confrontations that might arise. He was relieved when none did.
“Hands down, if we had one person complain about it, we had 40 people applaud it,” Guggenmos says. “There were people that were like, ‘Oh my God, this is great. Let me text my friends a picture. Or tweet it out. It’s about time. Everybody needs to step up.’”
In the past two weeks, nearly 30 bars and restaurants across the city have begun requiring proof of vaccination for entry. As more businesses follow, a group of gay bars and dives have emerged as trendsetters by taking swift action to enforce a policy they say protects their service staff and their customers.
“This is what our crowd wanted,” says Guggenmos, also a partner in Trade on 14th Street NW. “This is what our market wanted. We’ve had great support from our regulars. Our patrons have been phenomenal throughout the whole pandemic.”
Last week, a coalition of 13 D.C.-area theaters moved to require proof of vaccination from customers through the end of the year. This week, properties in José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup started advertising a policy requiring vaccinations for diners over 12. On Tuesday, August 10, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the city will mandate vaccinations or routine testing for its pool of more than 35,000 workers. I.M.P., the parent company for music venues like the 9:30 Club and the Anthem, followed suit for its performance spaces.
As he walked his dogs back on Saturday, July 31, Guggenmos says he observed eerily quiet scenes at several bars that had to ask customers to mask back up. Meanwhile, there was a line to get into Trade.
A little more than a mile away, in Adams Morgan, gay bar Pitchers had also started asking to see proof of vaccinations as soon as the new mask mandate went into effect. An Instagram post telling customers they had to show a hard copy or a photo of their vaccination cards firmly states “No exceptions, no arguing, no talking to the manager.”
Dave Perruzza, who owns Pitchers and adjoining lesbian bar A League of Her Own, says for his regulars, proving their vaccination status hasn’t been that big of a deal. “I feel like everyone’s been vaccinated,” he says.
Inside his bars, Perruzza says, 90 percent of the people are holding a drink at any given time, so they don’t have wear a mask under the current guidelines. He says he had already been discussing a vaccination policy with his managers the week before instituting one. He moved quickly to require vaccinations because he was concerned for his staff, and he did not want to reenact the challenges of 2020 as the delta variant spreads.
“I’m physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted from this shit. I’m like, enough is enough,” Perruzza says. “I’m not going through it all again. If you don’t get vaccinated, I don’t care if I’m losing your money, because honestly I can’t afford to lose everything else.”
Perruzza says he’s seen how delta can spread first-hand. He contracted a “breakthrough” case after a trip to Fire Island in New York. Because he was vaccinated, Perruzza says, his symptoms were minimal. “I didn’t even have a fever,” he says, although he did lose his sense of smell and taste.
In addition to Pitchers, ALOHO, Number Nine, and Trade, other D.C. gay bars that have started requiring proof of vaccinations or negative COVID tests include the Dirty Goose, Nellie’s, and Uproar Lounge — all along the U Street corridor — and JR’s Bar in Dupont Circle.
“Speaking from my age, you always felt like as a gay community we had to take care of ourselves,” says Guggenmos, 55. “But I’m coming from that 1990s point of view where they had to scream to get HIV medications. Act Up was formed.”
“We went through a pandemic before. Nobody cared,” Perruzza says. “A lot of [bar owners] are at an age where we lost friends to AIDS.”
Perruzza says in gay bars, workers often look out for each other as surrogate families. In many instances, people’s families may have disowned them for their sexual orientation. During the pandemic, Perruzza says he paid his staff when he couldn’t pay his D.C. taxes, which prevented him from obtaining a “Clean Hands” certificate and ultimately delayed his ability to get a resiliency grant from the city.
Information that members of the gay community shared after a cluster of breakthrough cases over Fourth of July weekend in Provincetown, Massachusetts, influenced the CDC’s decision to go back to recommending masks indoors for areas with a high level of spread.
In addition to the gay bars, a handful of no-frills watering holes in D.C. have also instituted vaccination requirements, including the Pug, Ivy and Coney, and Showtime Lounge.
“If you have not been able to get vaccinated, and want to come to the Pug, I will take you to get vaccinated,” owner Tony Tomelden tweeted.
During a night observing the door at Ivy and Coney in Shaw, Washington City Paper reported there were no major dust-ups, and several people thanked the bar staff for requiring vaccinations to get inside.
- Danny Meyer’s D.C. Restaurants Will Require Proof of Vaccinations for Indoor Dining [EDC]
- How A Gay Community Helped The CDC Spot A COVID Outbreak — And Learn More About Delta [NPR]
- D.C. Requires COVID-19 Vaccine for Government Workers, Teachers [DCist]
- I Watched the Door at a D.C. Bar the First Night It Required Proof of Vaccination [WCP]