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State edict impacts local bars, breweries

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Governor Gavin Newsom’s Wednesday announcement that all bars and indoor portions of restaurants in 19 counties across the state must close has impacted several local establishments to varying degrees.

The governor issued the edict following an alarming spike in new COVID-19 cases, positivity rates among those tested, hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

The move comes after California had allowed the limited reopening of some LA County bars and restaurants to offer inside dining and drinking in late May, with social distancing and mask requirements.

“And while it is so disappointing to take a step backward in our recovery journey, it’s critical that we work together to protect the health of our residents and capacity of our healthcare system,” Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer said.

The back and forth from Sacramento has had mixed impacts on longtime local favorites Claremont Craft Ales, Last Name Brewing and The Press.

Last Name is in Upland, part of San Bernardino County, a region the governor only “recommended” close its bars on Monday. But after the new COVID-19 numbers emerged, he  ordered the county’s bars closed on Wednesday, prompting Last Name co-owner Andy Dale to call a near immediate “last call” on their brewery’s outdoor patio. 

Claremont Craft Ales, located in LA County, had opened its tasting room for just one day before shutting down again on Monday.

Meanwhile Claremont’s The Press—which opened in 1997 on Harvard Avenue and is both a restaurant and a bar—has yet to reopen after closing its doors in March as the pandemic began to sweep across the country.

Though all of its 30 employees are currently furloughed, Press owner Steve Rudicel has been hesitant to reopen in any capacity, despite the state’s limited blessing in late May.

“It just felt like it was a little bit early, all that loosening of restrictions and all,” Mr. Rudicel said. “I certainly understand the economic imperative of that. But given the way officials were talking to the population in April and May, it didn’t feel like that much had really changed come June.”

It turns out he was wise to be skeptical, as the governor on Wednesday walked back the easing of restrictions on restaurants across the state’s hardest hit counties, including LA.

“That process of opening, and then in a week, two weeks or a month, having to shut down again, could be like an absolute death blow,” Mr. Rudicel said. “And certainly I worry about that for us, and I know specifically and from industry surveys that it would be a death blow to many, many restaurants. So that’s really big concern. We’ve got one shot to reopen, when do we push those chips in?”

With one chance at doing it right, it’s just impossible to know right now when that day will come.

“This thing is really hard to know,” Mr. Rudicel added. “And then to ask workers to come back to a big unknown and ... I don’t know. It feels like the wrong decision for me to make.”

Last Name shut down its tasting room in March and pivoted to solely wholesale and curbside pickup. The tasting room reopened June 12, with masks and social distancing required, to good sized crowds and brisk business.

“People were really ready to get out,” Last Name co-owner Andy Dale said last week. “And therein may lie the problem. I have to say that it feels close to irresponsible to be hosting people when we’re right next to LA County which has been ordered closed. It felt like we’re just kind of skating on the edge there.”

After much preparation and safety measure implementation, Claremont Craft Ales’ tasting room—which is within LA County—opened to the public last Saturday.

“We were being incredibly detailed and safe about opening, so it obviously took us a while to make the decision, and then we did it and it was great,” said CCA co-owner Emily Moultrie. “The customers were really appreciative of all the precautions we were taking, and they were comfy and happy to be there.”

Then came Governor Newsom’s Monday order that all LA County bars, an umbrella into which CCA’s tasting room technically falls, were to close.

“And with all that work, we got shut down the next day,” Ms. Moultrie said.

Both CCA and Last Name will continue to offer curbside pickup and distribute their beers to supermarkets and liquor stores.

CCA will offers curbside pickup Wednesday through Sunday from 2 to 7 p.m., with Last Name open for the service weekdays from 2 to 7 p.m. and on weekends from noon to 4 p.m.

Losing their tasting room business has impacted both breweries to different degrees.

“We’re an unusual business model,” Ms. Moultrie said. “We’re aren’t a restaurant, and we’re not just a bar. We’re a manufacturer. So that puts us into a different area of business. We can be a little bit more nimble. We can scale back and we can build up. A restaurant has so many moving parts, so many people who need to work there, there’s so many things it’s dependent on, and so much capital that has to go out in a restaurant. Our business model is just far more simple.”

In fact, CCA’s can and bottle sales were up by about 100% in May, both to drive-up customers and to retailers such as Trader Joe’s, Vons, Costco and Whole Foods.

Last Name’s business model differs in that it relies more heavily on its tasting room receipts and keg sales to restaurants and bars than it does on its can and bottle distribution to markets and specialty retailers.

“But we are getting prepared to certainly sell more packaged beer to our retail customers, more cans and bottles to grocery stores and liquor stores and BevMos and all that,” Mr. Dale said. “It’s pretty easy for us to open and close that part of our business. It’s just a little economically damaging when we can’t have the tasting room open.”

Mr. Rudicel has been ruminating since March about what to do at The Press. His situation differs greatly from that of CCA and Last Name in that The Press is primarily a restaurant, and a cozy one at that. Maintaining social distancing at the Harvard Avenue location would be next to impossible.

“I’ve worried for years about not making people sick, and keeping workers safe, and having it be a harassment free environment,” Mr. Rudicel said. “And all of those types of things are what I signed on to. But to worry about somebody’s grandma dying because something happened and they were in my place, but they didn’t get sick but their grandma did? I don’t know if I’m ready to handle that.”

So while Claremont’s small stable of popular nightspots are off limits for congregating, one has to wonder how long they will be able to hold on financially.

“I’m going to hang on as long as I can and try to get that thing open again in some form when it feels right,” Mr. Rudicel said. “I don’t think things have to be perfect, it just has to feel more safe and right to me than it does now.”

CCA’s robust distribution network was in place long before the pandemic hit the country in March. That network is likely going to be its saving grace, Ms. Moultrie said.

“Because we primarily function as a manufacturing business, that allows up to have a tasting room on our manufacturing site and it makes us a lot more nimble to be able to weather these kinds of things,” she said. “We wouldn’t necessarily have known that had this not happened, but being in it, we can see where we have just a little bit more breathing room.”

Last Name’s future appears relatively stable as well.

“As of right now, yes, we’re going to make it,” Mr. Dale said. “And that’s largely due to the money that became available through the (federal Small Business Association) loans and all that kind of stuff. So that kept us afloat, as well as the enhanced unemployment relief, but I don’t know how long this one will go for.

“But yes, I think we will come out the other side.”

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