As drag performers Alex Thee Rabbit and Naomi Dix pranced along a neon-lit stage at Ruby Deluxe Friday night, owner Timothy Lemuel hustled behind the bar, mixing jalapeno Mountain Dew margaritas for the three dozen or so customers seated inside. Every few minutes he’d duck out from the bar to cue up the lights or dash backstage to give a performer their five-minute warning.
In the time of COVID, it’s the best night the Raleigh club has seen in a while, but it’s still a fraction of what the business was before the pandemic when 200 weekend warriors would crowd into the LGBTQ haunt on Salisbury Street.
“We built our business on a sweaty dance floor and right now everyone is seated. It’s not the same, ” Lemuel told the INDY. “My particular niche clientele isn’t so positive that everything is safe yet so they are still a little sheepish.”
Lemuel has been more cautious than many club owners in Raleigh as the city’s nightlife revives with the lifting of regulations. Bars and restaurants, which Gov. Roy Cooper ordered to cut off alcohol sales by 9 p.m. during the height of the pandemic, may now stay open until 2 a.m.
But downtown’s economic recovery, entwined with the public’s comfort level returning to nightlife, is far from balanced.
It’s easy to see why. On Friday, the Fayetteville Street corridor remained mostly a ghost town—you could hear the cheese hit the pavement from an oversized slice at Benny Capitale’s—while a stroll down Glenwood could have you believe the pandemic never happened with hoards of maskless twenty-somethings in crop tops and Bermuda shorts packed into Milk Bar and Cornerstone.
And the sales data make that even more clear, according to Downtown Raleigh Alliance CEO Bill King. By the end of February, food and beverage sales had rebounded to 62 percent of what they were pre-COVID, up from a low of 16 percent last year.
“There is a bit of unevenness to the recovery that has happened in those sales,” King says. “The west side of downtown—Glenwood South and the Warehouse District—are closer to their pre-COVID levels. The eastern half of downtown—
Fayetteville Street and Moore Square—are still further off.”
Part of that is the slow return of office staff downtown, with many workers still enjoying the option to work from home. But business owners will tell you there’s also a cultural divide separating the mile-long stretch between Glenwood South and Fayetteville Street.
Bars and restaurants in the downtown core either shuttered completely or severely limited operations during the pandemic’s height. It was the responsible thing to do, says Paul Siler, who owns nightclubs Kings and Neptunes and neighboring restaurant Garland.
“In our little nucleus of that part of downtown, I think everybody has been really careful,” Siler told the INDY. “But if you’re going to include Glenwood South in downtown, that’s a whole different ball game. To me, Glenwood South may as well be in Atlanta.”
Lemuel had similar thoughts.
“Without being hateful, throughout COVID there’s been a whole group of people that have been going out and throwing caution aside and it’s reflected on the bars they go to,” Lemuel says. “You can see which bars cater to that group of people.”
Another set of numbers seems to bear that truth out. Although vaccines are now available to all age groups in North Carolina and a quarter of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated, young folks are seeing an uptick in cases, according to state epidemiologist Zack Moore, who works for North Carolina’s Division of Public Health.
“It is a glass half empty, glass half full thing,” Moore told the INDY. “The rates in the older population have dropped so dramatically since vaccination first rolled out and that has been great to see. Our 65-and-older population has seen dramatic improvements in case rates, in hospitalizations, in outbreaks—but it is the younger populations where we are seeing increases now, particularly 18 to 24-year-olds and that is where there has been the biggest increase.”
One major concern is the emergence of new variants of the virus, which may be able to transmit more easily and in new ways. But it’s difficult to blame the uptick in cases on any one thing, including nightlife, Moore says.
“We know [COVID] is spread most easily where people are close together and they’re indoors and can’t use masks consistently and bars are at top of that list and indoor dining is also a place where we have very solid evidence that transmission is more likely,” Moore says. “So we are always concerned about those but it’s really hard to tie our current trends to one particular change that was made.”
The good news is as more folks become vaccinated the better the outlook is overall and Moore is hopeful the current trends in younger populations won’t snowball into something worse.
Lemuel is cautiously optimistic, too. As vaccinations proliferate, he hopes his patrons will feel safe enough to return soon.
“I think we’re weeks away from doing a lot of business by comparison,” Lemuel says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor changed the capacity restrictions in the next month or two. We might be on the cusp of a really big summer.”
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