ITHACA, N.Y. — The iconic Rich the Rooster once again glows at the corner of West State Street on Saturday nights, as patrons filter in and out of The Chanticleer –– signaling a return to nightlife after months of COVID restrictions and curfews.
“We’re all very happy to be back,” Jeff Mazer, the bar’s manager, said in July just days after reopening. “It’s tiring, because none of us are used to it. We’ve been happy to see the people we haven’t been able to see for the last year. So far, everyone’s been great, buying drinks, tipping well.”
Even as bars and entertainment venues from Moonies to Lot 10 have restocked their drink selections, welcomed back regulars and flicked on their neon lights, it’s also been a summer of shortened hours and staffing shortages, of fleeting moments without pandemic anxiety and of new waves of caution over the Delta variant.
Downtown nightlife is still a far cry from its pre-pandemic existence. Bars are serving a smaller crowd, and no 24-hour spots remain. But 18 months after bars and clubs went dark, will late-night venues fully spring to life again?
“There is no nightlife,” Sam Chafee, owner of Sammy’s Pizzeria on the Commons, said in early August. The pizzeria used to serve a regular hum of customers until 2 a.m. after bars let out — now, the eatery has been closing at 8 p.m.
Chafee said he hopes after-hours business will return as college students flock back in the coming weeks — even as he worries some venues will shut down again as cases climb in Tompkins County.
According to Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, daytime foot traffic has increased this summer compared to 2020, with visitors returning to the city. But nighttime traffic has been slower to return.
Ferguson said in early August that the strongest downtown foot traffic occurs between noon and 8 p.m., with some traffic present afterward.
“Nighttime establishments closed, and once that happened, that sort of foot traffic just evaporated,” Ferguson said. “That’s one of the sectors that has struggled the most. Some of these businesses in the night economy remain closed even today. That’s probably one of the hardest-hit sectors, the night economy businesses.”
‘Everyone’s kind of getting their feet under them’
For some Ithaca bars and entertainment venues, state-issued curfews and capacity limits made reopening impossible until this summer — forcing a hard reset after New York lifted restrictions in June.
After about 17 months, the paper came down from the Lot 10 windows and the bar welcomed back patrons to the upstairs lounge for the first time since March 2020. For owner Caleb Scott, reopening felt like starting from scratch, from hiring new staff to replenishing stock while running on limited resources.
Scott said the venue’s reopening comes after Lot 10 wrestled with business plans throughout the pandemic, only to realize that the bar would lose money if it opened with physical distancing and capacity restrictions.
“You can’t headline a band and book an event when you can only put three people in a room. Most of the business plans that we tried to flesh out over the last year and a half, all of them would’ve cost us money,” Scott said. “We wouldn’t have been able to have the patrons we would’ve needed to pay the costs.”
As Lot 10 gets its feet on the ground again, other bars are also bouncing back after months without customers. Just down the block, The Chanticleer reopened in October 2020 for about five weeks, but after the state announced a 10 p.m. bar curfew in November, Mazer said staying open wasn’t worth it.
When the bar opened its doors again in July, Mazer said The Chanticleer was limiting utilities, payroll and inventory, buying just enough drinks to operate until business returns to normal.
“For now, if things run out, they run out,” Mazer said. “Got to get money in the bank before we can pay for things.”
Mazer added that stimulus programs helped the bar stay afloat when the patrons went away, and Ashley Cake, owner of The Watershed, said relief programs have allowed the bar to navigate COVID safety at her own pace — slowly peeling away and reimplementing public health measures as cases fluctuate.
As cases ebbed in July, The Watershed welcomed back regulars as the bar ran at half capacity, Cake said. They lifted the mask mandate and were turning away customers at the door, sticking to capacity limits. Things felt “a little bit less anxious,” Cake said.
But now, the mask mandate is back and business has slid again, halting reopening plans as the virus spreads in the county. Just as some venues reopened, new caution sounded over gathering indoors as the Delta variant spreads nationally.
Through shifting restrictions, Cake said in July that she thinks it won’t be until the fall that The Watershed gets back to healthy financial business. Still, hustling for relief from the city, state and the Small Business Administration allowed her to keep paying her staff through it all.
“Everyone’s kind of getting their feet under them right now. Service is still different,” Cake said in July. “We still have to be wary of not packing the place out, and all of this muscle memory is coming back for everybody, about how to people, how to bar.”
As bars crawl back, late-night food options are slower to return
On the first Saturday of August, music blasted from Moonies Bar and Nightclub at midnight as handfuls of bar-goers floated in and out of the club. About a dozen people leaned up against the bar at Pete’s on South Cayuga Street. Some patrons puffed swirls of smoke that glowed in the light of the newly lit Lot 10 sign.
But when the music stops and the signs go dark, where do patrons go?
The place for downtown late-night eats this summer has narrowed to one spot: Casablanca Pizzeria. Staffing limitations and pandemic financial constraints have meant early closings for other eateries that have long served customers through the early morning.
According to Cake, who chairs the DIA nighttime economy committee, having fewer places for patrons to gather through the night is a public safety issue — one that existed before the pandemic and has worsened as businesses are strapped for resources.
“You have the bars reopening and then you don’t have places to support people — amenities, but also necessary infrastructure,” Cake said. “The bars spill out at 1:30 a.m., you have hundreds of people on the Commons without anywhere to go. They end up getting in fights in the pizza line, because that’s where everybody’s congregated.”
Shortstop Deli, which was open 24 hours for 42 years, closes at 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and closes at 9 p.m. on Sundays, after pandemic losses first forced owner Chuck Dong to pause 24/7 business in March 2020. The downtown 7-Eleven has closed at 11 p.m. this summer as franchises face worker shortages that make operating 24 hours impossible.
After Moonies reopened in June, Umar Muhammad, owner of Casablanca, said he extended the pizzeria’s hours until 2 a.m. on busier nights, serving customers after the bar lets out across the Commons.
Muhammad said in July that there had been a few fights, but called them “regular stuff.” He added that customers have thanked him and his staff for dishing out slices into the morning, without other eateries open on the Commons alongside Casablanca.
But expanding the number of late-night options is more than a matter of encouraging eateries to stay open later.
Ferguson said while the DIA has previously nudged businesses to extend their hours, he’s holding off on insisting they stay open, even as late-night gathering spots remain limited.
“We are particularly concerned that many businesses are still struggling with actually finding employees,” Ferguson said. “You really want people to eat while they’re drinking as well. But we know that it’s just not as simple as asking somebody to do it, because they don’t have the personnel to work those shifts. Somebody can’t work a 12-hour day and then turn around and work another eight hours until 2 a.m. You can’t do that. It’s just physically impossible.”
As for Shortstop, which used to serve up Hot Truck subs at any hour of the day, Cake said the eatery has been doing “an essential service for decades,” but added that Dong needs to be supported as a small business owner to have the resources to staff back up.
“Chuck loves his staff and he treats them very well, but it’s a hard job,” Cake said.
As Ithaca emerges from the pandemic and as nightlife cautiously returns, Cake said the community needs to invest in downtown infrastructure to keep people safe at night — saying she believes this investment shouldn’t come through more policing, but rather through funding more resources, from eateries to transportation. The Ithaca Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s not just like when the professional offices close, the Commons goes away,” Cake said. “There’s been a long process of divestment of the city and civic organizations in nightlife. We just need to take care of our things and our community, because the communities that are safest have the most resources. All that boring mundane stuff like eating and drinking and getting home safely is what we really need to invest in.”
‘We’ll be able to open up with some sense of normalcy’
As bar owners look to the future, reopening has come with both waves of excitement and heaviness.
For Scott, welcoming customers to Lot 10 again means hoping to at least break even as he operates with limited hours. It also means opening while knowing that some downtown venues didn’t make it through the pandemic — just down the Commons, Silky Jones remains permanently closed.
“I’m gonna be able to open. Other people are not so fortunate,” Scott said in July. “Dear friends of mine lost their businesses in Ithaca, gone forever. We’ll be able to open up with some sense of normalcy.”
Scott said he felt obligated and excited to get up and running again as a gathering place for the Ithaca community to enjoy live music. The Lot 10 inbox was “flooded with love” as the paper came off the bar windows, he said, and last Saturday, bar-goers hopped from Moonies to Lot 10, exclaiming that the lounge was finally open.
As late-night entertainment spots emerge while they navigate the shaky ground of rebuilding finances and business, Ferguson said he’s confident these venues will prove busy again as people feel more comfortable going out — adding that nightlife remains a vital part of Ithaca.
“We need a night scene for young adults or the young at heart. We need to attract and promote more family entertainment as well, and to provide entertainment options for youth and teens,” Ferguson wrote in an email. “We want people who live here to feel they can access live entertainment options — it is part of a healthy and dynamic community.”
Some bar owners say they’ve returned stronger than ever, even as crowds are just trickling back. Scott said patrons will finally be able to enjoy the renovations the bar completed in 2019. For Cake, the pandemic has allowed her to change the way the bar operates behind the scenes and to better compensate her staff.
“I can attribute that to the extremely hard reset that was extremely hard to navigate,” Cake said. “I’m really excited about our future. I just worked really hard at making sure we had the resources we needed to recover at our own pace. And I think that’s really made all the difference.”