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How LGBTQ Houston Bars are Responding to COVID-19

Gayborhood establishments are taking extra precautions.

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The Eagle (shown above), Pearl Bar, and ReBar are prioritizing health.

With the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and the unprecedented canceling of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the level of fear and panic-buying has increased locally. Those looking to take a break from the news and get out of the house this weekend may be encouraged to see the added health precautions that many local LGBTQ bars are taking.

“We’ve been monitoring the situation,” says Jeffrey Harmon, the owner of ReBar, which has several events this weekend including a RuPaul’s Drag Race watch party. “We’ll follow the health department’s rules.”

While some bars lack automatic dishwashers (and have been washing glasses in sinks where the water temperature isn’t likely hot enough to kill this virus), ReBar has a high-temperature Ecolab dishwasher and is considering switching to disposable cups. 

Although all ReBar events are still on, Harmon says the bar will cancel them if local officials ask it to, and will update its status on social media accordingly. And ReBar isn’t the only LGBTQ bar prioritizing its patrons’ health. Pearl Bar is taking precautions and offering guests both hand sanitizers and antibacterial soap. Barbacks at the Washington Avenue bar will wear gloves, and drinks will be served in disposable cups. 

“We have the responsibility to be an LGBTQ place to come and wind down,” says Pearl Bar owner Julie Mabry. “We are in the business [of helping] to keep the community going.” 

Mark De Lange, owner of Eagle Houston, says his bar started implementing changes a few weeks ago. 

“We switched our cleaning products from basic Windex to Lysol and antibacterial agents, and added bleach to the floor cleaners,” De Lange says. “We are using plastic cups for beverages and only adding fruit on request. Door hosts dispense hand sanitizer as guests enter or exit.” 

De Lange says the Eagle has also set up hand-sanitizer stations throughout the bar, and plans to keep those in place permanently. The bar has also hired a temp person just to clean bar tops, tables, and other surfaces several times an hour. 

“All staff are required to sanitize their hands several times an hour, and we have signage in the restrooms encouraging guests to wash their hands [long enough to sing] two rounds of “Happy Birthday,” De Lange notes.

Along with washing your hands and covering your mouth (but not with your hand) when you cough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises social distancing. Since staying six feet away from other people isn’t likely in a bar, fist or elbow bumps are safer than handshakes and hugs.

According to an open letter signed by more than 100 organizations—including the Montrose Center, The National LGBT Cancer Network, GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, Whitman-Walker Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, New York Transgender Advocacy Group, and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance—the LGBTQ community is more at risk for the COVID-19 virus due to higher rates of smoking, HIV, cancer, and inadequate access to healthcare.

The COVID-19 virus story is changing almost hourly, so it is important to keep up with the news and check for the latest cancellations or closings. In Italy, where the virus has spread at an alarming rate and the mortality rate has been 4 percent, all bars and restaurants are closed. Only grocery stores and pharmacies remain open. 

“I think going to a bar is safer than going to the gym right now, where you have to touch all the equipment,” Harmon says. “You have to be respectful, but you have to live your life.”

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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