October 23, 2020

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End of bar life as we knew it not a painless loss

Bar Italia’s patio which is normally overflowing with customers was particularly slow this past Saturday evening as a possible outcome of the tightened COVID-19 restrictions. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Bar Italia’s patio which is normally overflowing with customers was particularly slow this past Saturday evening as a possible outcome of the tightened COVID-19 restrictions. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)


There’s no sex in the air at the bars now. That’s what’s different. On the last Saturday before Winnipeg starts its code orange pandemic restrictions, one of the city’s most infamous clubs looks like this: an empty dance floor, a wide-open bar, and groups of young men making desultory glances at young women seated at distanced tables.

Yeah, it’s still messy, in some of the ways you’d expect. The scent of spilled beers almost sticks to your lips.

But it’s hard to flirt when you’re ordered to stay in one place. The things that bring people to the bars — the closeness of bodies, the heat, the sweat, the kinetic physicality that offers a tempting gamble of finding either passion or regret — all of that is paused now. You can’t inhale aphrodisia when the city is holding its breath.

This isn’t the new normal. Things don’t have to be normal. Sometimes, they’re just what they have to be.

But if you’d gone to sleep after a bar night in 2019 and woken up to go to one in the fall of 2020, you’d find it hard to shake how subdued it’s suddenly become. Just weeks ago, during that long exhale when Winnipeg’s case numbers were low, leaving a Corydon bar meant shouldering past crushes of women in miniskirts and men in cologne.

Now: a naked street, smothered by the deflated silence to which we’ve recently become so accustomed.

Because last week, as COVID-19 case numbers grew, provincial health authorities issued a measured rebuke of Winnipeg’s nightlife, and then announced new restrictions. It was the right thing to do. They could do more, and maybe they should, and maybe they still will. Ontario just closed strip clubs and implemented an 11 p.m. last call.

In Manitoba, the response feels inconsistent. An outdoor walking tour of a historic park set for Tuesday — a healthy activity, low risk, easy to social distance — was cancelled due to the 10-person gathering limit. But nightclubs will be allowed to host far more patrons indoors, so long as they wear masks when not seated.

The reasons for this are no secret. The hospitality sector is fighting to survive, and countless businesses would not make it out of a more severe round of restrictions. Still, everyone is wrestling with how life is being upended, and in that light it’s hard to feel the clamps tighten while riskier behaviours are allowed to continue.

So if there was frustration, amidst rising numbers, with the largely young nightlife crowds which, when judged from a distance, seemed to be flouting the danger, well that’s understandable too. The pandemic’s spotlight works like that, each fresh outbreak shifting a glaring eye from one demographic or location or behaviour to the next.

That’s unavoidable, that’s fine. From a public health standpoint, it’s right to name the trend. From a standpoint of searching for a sense of control in the chaos wreaked by a virus we can’t see, it’s comforting to have someone to point to who did the wrong things, whose behaviour rolled back all the hopeful progress we’d made.

We’re all frightened somehow, or if not that, then at least a little on edge. No matter what else we say.

"I’m not scared," one maskless man on the bar patio tells me, with great animation. "Never. Never."

He explains that he expects to die at 60, for reasons not clearly explained. That he believes in God and that’s why he’s not afraid. The bravado of that conversation is undercut by a certain tension: in telling me this, he is trying to communicate something about himself that he wants me to know, but it’s not quite clear what it is.

Maybe he just needs to believe that he can hang onto these moments. That they don’t have to change.

Still, most of the nightlife crowd has gotten the message. At the downtown club, a staff member tells me this is the slowest night he’s ever seen in his many years at the venue. People are scared, he thinks. He gets it. We still hug goodbye, because that human impulse to seal a meeting with touch overrides our more recent programming.

We ought to be gentle with these little transgressions. It’s hard to do a pandemic right. Near impossible to be perfect.

Is this a eulogy for bar life? Maybe, and perhaps because someone ought to write it. The majority of Winnipeggers don’t mourn it, and for good reasons. It is not nearly as important as the more foundational pillars of life we are still scrambling to shore up, things such as health care and work and getting kids a safe education.

Mostly, it’s easy to see nightlife as a frivolous indulgence, especially if one either never enjoyed it or simply grew out of it. If youth is wasted on the young, then its memory is often lost on the old. We are quick to forget how strong that longing for a place to connect, to burn, to lose ourselves in a night that crashes and swells like a wave.

It’s hard to picture when we’ll ever see one of those again. Looking around at the club, at the empty space where the dance floor should be heaving and the half-smiles where faces would normally be beaming, all I feel is a bittersweet mixture of sadness and gratitude that I had my time to test those waters without being afraid.

So just a moment then, to spare a thought for how nightlife has and will have to change. It’s not the greatest victim of the pandemic by any measure, but it is not a painless loss, either. Life for everyone has gotten smaller. The ways we knew how to connect are eroded away. For a brief exhale this summer, it was natural to want to rebuild them.

That was never going to last. The new numbers make it clear why. But some forgiveness for the hope it could.

At the club, a woman (OK, it was this writer) slides off her high stool and, not moving from her two square feet of space, throws her hips into the beat of the live band playing on a stage that feels like it’s an acre away. A security guard leans into her ear with a sharp rebuke: "you gotta sit down," he says, gruffly. "No dancing."

She sits down at the table, but the body wants what it wants. Her shoulders still sway.


Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Updated on Monday, September 28, 2020 at 1:22 PM CDT: Corrects use of "flouting"

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