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Few Gay Bars Left in L.A. Face Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Debt As City Prepares to Re-Open

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]s Los Angeles starts to show signs of normalcy after a long year of pandemic-induced closures,  the LGBTQ+ community has difficulty keeping the community together as gathering spaces and gay bars across the USA hold on by a thread. 

Many have shut down, and some permanently. 

“They only gave us a two-day notice we had to shut down,” said Brian McIntire, owner of Precinct DTLA in a phone interview with L.A. TACO. “During that time when you’re not expecting something to happen, everything comes to a halt, no income coming in.”

The short notice meant that bars had no time to prepare or to make arrangements. Many gay bars had not considered having outdoor spaces or selling food, things that would become requirements for the pandemic. Many tried various business models in order to try to survive, but most had trouble coping with restrictions, especially in high-density areas like downtown where there was little room for outdoor setups. 

“We were closed for the first month,” said Oliver Apuche owner of Redline DTLA in a phone interview. “We tried to do a to-go model and still sell food, but because of opening and then closing for the riots and protests in Downtown LA, we were closed for another ten days and all the food spoiled. We started losing money because the sales weren’t so strong. Our to-go model crashed and burned.”

Rooftops and parking lots have worked out more consistently for the bars that could afford them. “So many of us when we opened these, having an exposable outdoor space was not near the top of anyone’s list,” said McIntire. Parking itself has long been a massive issue in Los Angeles, with strict regulations meaning that businesses across the city have long had trouble opening if there wasn’t enough parking nearby.

“The city of L.A. is very protective of the concept of having enough parking spaces and whatnot, and those kinds of things really hinder a nightclub and a bar,” said Scott Craig, owner of Akbar in Silver Lake. “What the city might now realize is they can’t be so picky about those regulations.” Many of the bars have continued onwards with the support of online events, such as Twitch streams promoted by performers from Drag Race. But these events have only managed to raise so much money.

Many fear that paying off the backlog isn’t going to be doable with the expected numbers as the percentage of people allowed inside bars is still incredibly low.

“At the beginning of this, we were trying to stay on top of our online events,” said McIntire. “At that point, most fundraising for the bar was for the staff who were freshly out of work.”

To help raise money for bars across the country,  GayCities, Queerty, and LGBTQ Nation teamed up and started the #SaveOurSpaces campaign, a campaign for collecting money to help disperse to struggling LGBTQ+ businesses. Their page includes a growing list of LGBTQ+ spaces that have opened GoFundMes in order to stay afloat and has received hundreds of thousands to advertise from companies including Grindr and GoFundMe.

“Queer spaces are such an important part of a lot of people’s experience,” said Scott Gatz, founder, and CEO of Q.Digital, who set up the campaign. “They’re a place to gather, they’re a place to connect, they’re a place to let your hair down and be yourself. Whether that’s in a small town or big town, they’re critically important. We want to make sure the pandemic isn’t the reason they go away.”

Even as the economic implications of this pandemic have become far clearer, these bars typically are still running on month-to-month rental agreements. This years-worth of debt weighs heavy on bar owners as they prepare to potentially reopen in April. Many fear that paying off the backlog isn’t going to be doable with the expected numbers as the percentage of people allowed inside bars is still incredibly low.

“When your capacity normally was 300 to 400 people, and now you’re limited to having 60 to 70...we didn’t have enough revenue to cover the overhead,” said Sinatra, owner of Executive Suite in Long Beach. “The only reason we were able to reopen is that we had an area outside where we could put up a tent. We were also able to serve food, we had a restaurant license as well.” 

“We have to have a minimum of 50 percent capacity before we can even turn a single cent of profit to even just survive,” said Apuche. “I’m gonna have to start paying on a loan I took out in April, and we haven’t even opened yet.”

The state and the federal government have not bailed a lot of these businesses out, with restrictions on who can receive the money being very difficult to qualify for if you aren’t able to open in any capacity.

“Gay bars are few and far between in Los Angeles, and they’re getting fewer and farther between.” said Craig.“If it all goes on for another six months, this town is going to be very different than what it was. 

“How much of a hole are you going to let people be in before you actually give real help?” Apuche asked. “A loan you give to a business that has been shut down for an entire year is just more debt. Just rent, I’m $100,000 dollars in debt. Times that by ten bars and none of them have anything coming in. How are we going to save them all?”

Listed on the GayCities page, there are seven bars in Los Angeles county alone with GoFundMe pages, of which only two (Akbar in Silverlake, and New Jalisco Bar in DTLA) have actually been fully funded. Many other bars on top of this have continued their own GoFundMes that aren’t listed on there. Some long-time gay bars, including Rage, Gold Coast, Flaming Saddles, and Gym Bar in West Hollywood, and Oil Can Harry’s in Studio City have shuttered permanently. 

“Gay bars are few and far between in Los Angeles, and they’re getting fewer and farther between.” said Craig.“If it all goes on for another six months, this town is going to be very different than what it was. 

These spaces are important to a good deal of people and have been the basis of safe spaces where the LGBTQ+ community can express themselves, and high-rent prices would lead to new places coming in being unlikely to fill the shoes.

“It’s more than just a business trying to survive,” Craig said. “I think it’s a form of society, a form of kinship and comradeship with like-minded people.”

For donations, visit the #SaveOurSpaces page here. Executive Suite is not listed there but also has a GoFundMe page, separately here.

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