Restrictions ‘depressing as hell’ for gameday business at Lawrence bars

Health official: ‘It is not about flourishing. It’s about surviving.’

Restaurants and bars in Lawrence were without their usual business on Jayhawk football gameday last Saturday. (Submitted by Explore Lawrence to Kansas Reflector)

On the first game day of the 2020 season for the University of Kansas football team, bars and restaurants across town had empty seats at kickoff and were closed before halftime, a strange sight for fall Saturday in Lawrence.

When the Big 12 conference announced plans to play fall sports, businesses in both Manhattan and Lawrence let out a sigh of relief. Unlike their Kansas State University counterparts, however, KU chose not to allow fans at football games this fall to reduce the spread of the virus and limit large gatherings.

Additionally, a new county health order requires bars and restaurants to cease alcohol sales at 9 p.m. and close their doors by 10 p.m. The order has drawn significant criticism from owners of businesses impacted since going into effect Sept. 4.

Kathryn Myres, of Black Stag Brewery, which opened on Massachusetts Street in February 2019, said the changes ruined gameday business.

“It killed gameday completely,” Myres said. “Last year, they were super, super, super busy days and we expected it to go down without fans in the stands, but it was worse than we thought.”

No fans in town for the game meant bars and restaurants, like Black Stag, saw meager to no crowds on gameday this year and with a late 9 p.m. kickoff, were closed well before the game reached its conclusion.

Both KU and K-State fell last Saturday to nonconference opponents. The Jayhawks lost against Coastal Carolina University 38-23, and businesses serving alcohol in Lawrence lost revenue, compounded by already reduced business amid COVID-19.

Business revenues for the Black Stag were already down 50% since the pandemic began, Myers said. Add in nonexistent gamedays — once among their most profitable days of the year — and their business will be feeling the financial squeeze of the pandemic, she said.

Myers said the order is unfairly coming down on restaurants and bars who have worked hard to follow guidelines since the onset of the pandemic, while KU students continue to gather en masse and, until Thursday, did not face consequences for doing so.

“The restaurants aren’t the problem. It’s the big groups of students,” Myers said. “We aren’t a college kid hangout spot. We’re doing everything we can just to survive.”

Dan Patridge, director of Lawrence-Douglas County public health department, said the decision was made in response to a spike in cases when bars and restaurants opened back up.

Partridge said they do not look at this as a black-and-white issue pitting gathering at bars against gathering at homes. With the additional testing from KU, he said, it became clear to the health department that limiting factors were needed in environments where the risk of transmission of the virus is highest.

“We couldn’t sidestep the riskiness of bars when we looked at our outbreaks and number of cases associated with bars,” Partridge said. “We are trying to find the middle ground where we can protect the safety public and allow businesses to survive. It is not about flourishing. It’s about surviving.”

The department will review data once it has a better idea of how the restriction is impacting case numbers, Partridge said. He did not guarantee any change would come of the new information but did say the book was not closed on the issue if bars could prove less risky.

Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence for 44 years and a member of the Lawrence Restaurant Association, hoped gameday might look like it did two days earlier when he had to close a full bar during the fourth quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs season opener.

On Saturday, however, Renfro’s restaurant and bar stood empty.

“It was depressing as hell, I’ll tell ya. It’s revenue losses,” Renfro said.

Renfro said he does not blame the health department for taking action. He said he believes health officials are trying their hardest to mitigate the spread of the virus, but that they are going about it the wrong way.

“I believe they will have the opposite effect than what they wanted to do,” Renfro said. “They want to slow down college kids from socializing and what they did is send it to the houses, whereas I can monitor it down here like a babysitter.”

Matt Lewellyn, managing partner of 23rd Street Brews, said he hoped the health department would look to revise the order in the future.

KU football’s next home game is Oct. 3 against Oklahoma State University, but if the order stays in effect, Lewellyn does not believe game day business will bounce back.

“With no guests coming into town and this order in place, gameday just won’t do much for us,” Lewellyn said. “It has just destroyed gameday business.”