By Lauryn Nania
For Tracy Molyneaux, it was like “getting hit by a bus” when she heard her place of employment at Carson City Saloon was forced to close due to COVID-19, but now things are getting better.
Lavinia Ivancia misses the connectivity of the Pittsburgh community that was brought into Delanie’s Coffee prior to the pandemic that cost her a job and a life.
As a South Side bartender of thirteen years, Topher Gabig foresees that the atmosphere of the South Side will not ever be the same following the events of the pandemic.
Eight months into a pandemic, small businesses in places like Pittsburgh’s South Side are teetering on the verge of collapse, even if they still harbor hope that things will return to “normal.”
Unfortunately, they have no clue when that will be, especially with cases continuing to rise in Allegheny County.
East Carson Street located in Pittsburgh’s South Side is the heart of the city’s entertainment life. The street is lined with an array of businesses including clubs, bars, restaurants, and tattoo shops.
On March 19, 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf released an executive order that called for all nonessential businesses in numerous counties including Allegheny County to close in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Since then, these South Side businesses continue to face hardships to keep their work afloat.
Employees working at South Side businesses such as Carson City Saloon, Delanie’s Coffee, Ice 9 Studio, and Tiki Lounge discuss how their work-life like that of many small businesses has transformed during the pandemic.
After being a part of the South Side for eleven years, The Rex Theatre has officially closed due to issues that arose from COVID-19. Photo by Lauryn Nania.
Carson City Saloon
Carson City Saloon is located on 14th and East Carson Street. The two-story bar including a rooftop has been in business since June of 2006.
Tracy Molyneaux worked as a waitress at Carson City Saloon since its debut opening in 2006. As of October 2020, Molyneaux works as a manager at Carson City Saloon and other sister locations.
“The whole world got turned upside down,” Molyneaux said in regard to the initial closure of Carson City Saloon on March 19, 2020.
Molyneaux discussed her concerns not only for herself but for the entire staff that allowed the East Carson Street bar to run efficiently.
“It’s the kitchen staff, bartenders, servers– people that have been with us for five to seven years. And we’re their only source of income,” Molyneaux said.
The most crucial day of the year for the bar is Pittsburgh’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade as it brings in the most customers. According to Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the city and its organizers canceled the 2020 parade that was to be held on March 14, 2020.
According to the Allegheny County Health Department, on parade day, March 14, Allegheny County recorded its first two cases of COVID-19.
“We would’ve never made it through the summer without that money in the bank,” Molyneaux said. “If we wouldn’t have had parade day, we probably wouldn’t have made it.”
According to the Pennsylvania Government website, Allegheny County was instated into a green phase on June 5, 2020, which allowed bars and restaurants to open at 50% capacity. However, Carson City Saloon remained closed from March 19 to June 19, 2020.
Due to the safety protocols that were instilled like wearing a face mask, social distancing and limiting the number of guests per table, Molyneaux said it became more of a hassle to run the business in an atmosphere where mingling with others is usually encouraged.
“Our whole vibe is the opposite of social distancing. It’s ‘come and meet your friends’, ‘come and have a party and hang out until two a.m.’,” Molyneaux said.
The bar attempted to bring in more guests due to the Pittsburgh Penguins being in the hockey playoffs. However, Molyneaux said they were losing more profits than earning due to the lack of customers. The bar temporarily closed again on Aug. 10.
“It didn’t seem worth it to take people off of unemployment when they were walking out of the restaurant with fifty dollars,” Molyneaux said.
Once more people had a better grasp of the safety protocols that have to be followed in restaurants and bars, Carson City Saloon decided they were ready for another reopening. Carson City Saloon’s most recent reopening was on September 24, 2020. The new hours are Thursday and Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. with a capacity of 75 customers.
“Our last weekend was really good, considering everything that is happening, it was really good,” Molyneaux said about the following reopening on September 24.
Lavinia Ivancia, managing partner of Delanie’s Coffee, prepares a cup of coffee behind the counter. Photo by Lauryn Nania.
Delanie’s Coffee is located on 17th and East Carson Street. The quaint, bilevel coffee shop filled with exposed brick walls, accented with art from Pittsburgh artists has been a staple stop in the city for nine years.
Delanie’s Coffee closed when the executive order was released on March 19 for all nonlife sustaining businesses to close, and there were limited plans towards reopening when the previous manager of seven years left.
Even during such a devastating time for small businesses, Lavinia Ivancia had aspirations to revive the popular South Side coffee shop. “I came in and wanted to reopen [Delanie’s Coffee],” said Lavinia Ivancia, managing partner of Delanie’s Coffee.
Delanie’s Coffee was closed from March 2020 until July when Ivancia came to the new management position. Ivancia previously worked with the main corporation that owns Delanie’s Coffee in the management of their other restaurants. However, when the coffee shop was seeking new management in the midst of the pandemic, she took the opportunity.
Ivancia explained it was one other employee and herself working for three weeks to get the shop to meet the standards for reopening.
“We didn’t know what to expect. It’s a college town, so we depend on that, and South Side was a ghost town for a while,” Ivancia said.
When the coffee shop reopened in July, they were solely doing takeout orders. Ivancia explained that in the beginning after reopening, their sales were only 20% of what the business made prior to the pandemic.
“It hurt because, with coffee shops, people come for the environment,” Ivancia said.
About a month later, Delanie’s Coffee was allowing customers to sit in with a limited capacity. During this time, Ivancia explained that it was difficult to get employees.
“The kids who work at coffee shops are in college, and probably were making more on unemployment,” Ivancia said. “Nobody wanted to come back to work.”
As of Oct. 2020, Delanie’s Coffee had a total of five employees all of which work at least twelve hours weekly.
Ivancia described Delanie’s Coffee as a place that connects with the community. The shop’s brick walls are blanketed with pieces of art donated from local artists to be purchased by customers.
Prior to COVID-19, Ivancia explained people in the community used Delanie’s Coffee as a place to have events that would showcase their work such as book readings.
“We were supporting local artists and doing events, and we lost that. We can’t do events anymore,” Ivancia said.
Despite the hardships the pandemic has presented to small businesses like Delanie’s Coffee, Ivancia expressed her hopes for the future of the coffee shop.
The kitchen has been closed since the reopening in July, and a goal for Ivancia is to reopen it.
“I’m from Romania and breakfast is very important to our culture. I feel like everybody should start their day with a good cup of coffee and a good breakfast,” Ivancia said.
Ice 9 Studio
On the second floor of Ice 9 Studio, tattoo artists Kristin Hawk Snyder and Laura Mohn talk with each other before clients come in. Photo by Lauryn Nania.
Located towards the end of the strip of East Carson Street is Ice 9 Studio. The two-story tattoo parlor has various personalized ink stations customized with vibrant art where each of the six artists work.
When COVID-19 became prevalent in Allegheny County, Kristin Hawk Snyder, tattoo artist at Ice 9 Studio, was not expecting the business to be affected as soon as it was.
“We are in a business [where] one of the main pillars of it is being clean, preventing illnesses and cross-contamination. And the fact that we are trained and certified yearly to do so. We had masks in the shop before the whole world did. We thought from the start that this isn’t going to affect us,” Snyder said.
However, Ice 9 Studio was forced to close after the March 19 non-life sustaining business executive order was released.
The tattoo artists at Ice 9 Studio are independent contractors filing 1099 tax forms rather than W-2 forms that would make them eligible for unemployment compensation and other federal benefits.
“We’re self-employed, but we work at Ice 9,” Snyder said.
Due to the artists being independent contractors, there was a delay in unemployment payments from the PA Department of Labor and Industry.
Aside from the $1,200 stimulus check workers received from the IRS in April, Snyder said she did not receive any other unemployment benefits until late May. She was the first of the Ice 9 Studio artists to receive her unemployment compensation.
“I just watched my savings deplete over time,” said Laura Mohn, another Ice 9 tattoo artist. “I had to go home and work for my parents for, like, a month. None of us had [a source] of income, and we couldn’t get through to the unemployment office.”
Mohn said she didn’t receive any unemployment payments until August when Ice 9 Studio closed in March.
Snyder explained that the shop did not receive any small business loans, but the landlord of the building where Ice 9 Studio is located loaned the business money for a few months while they were closed.
“He was a lot nicer than a lot of the landlords around here,” Snyder said. “But now we have to pay that all back. There are still months of catching up to do,” she added.
Ice 9 Studio offers tattoos to clients by appointments and walk-ins. However, to follow safety guidelines during the pandemic, there are a limited number of walk-ins allowed at the studio.
“We have some artists that make a lot more money off of walk-ins than appointments, so they’re affected,” said Snyder.
Many businesses across the nation have offered their employees the option to work from home, but Snyder explained that isn’t a viable option for tattoo artists.
“When your job is creating something, you can’t take your work home,” Snyder said. “We’re commission based; we don’t get [paid time off]. If you don’t work, you don’t make money,” she added.
Ice 9 Studio was able to reopen when Allegheny County went into a green phase on June 5, 2020.
“I think the big thing is just that, we’re disappointed how the government handled it, still handle it, and from what it feels like, will continue to handle it,” said Snyder.
Lindsey Kasmiroski enforces one of Tiki Lounge’s COVID-19 protocols by wearing a shirt that reads “you can not stand at the bar.” Photo by Lauryn Nania.
On 20th and East Carson Street, a bar is located that transports its guests from the streets of the South Side to a taste of paradise with tropical cocktails and walls built from bamboo plants imported from Thailand. Tiki Lounge has been a part of the Pittsburgh bar scene for 15 years.
Under the circumstances of the pandemic, Tiki Lounge reduced their staff from ten people to only four bartenders which are Lindsey Kasmiroski, Dylan Odom-Camirand, William Goughner and Topher Gabig.
“We all knew something was about to happen, but we weren’t ready for it to be a total lockdown,” Gabig, bartender, acting general manager and cook, said in regard to COVID-19 hitting Allegheny County.
Prior to the forced closure of non-life sustaining businesses on March 19, bars were open for an expected busy day of Pittsburgh’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. However, on March 14, 2020, Gabig described the business as “minute” and was at “25% capacity” compared to the last thirteen years he has worked parade days.
After the temporary closure of Tiki Lounge on March 19, they remained closed even after Gov. Tom Wolf announced Allegheny County would move to a green phase on June 5, and eventually reopened on June 24.
“We were open for four days and then the order came down that if you didn’t serve food, you’re done,” Kasmiroski said. “No one comes to Tiki Lounge to eat,” she added.
Tiki Lounge remained closed from June 28, 2020, to mid-September after implementing a limited food menu. Since the reopening, Gabig said business has been “dead”.
The hours of Tiki Lounge prior to the pandemic were typically 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., and the bartenders would split shifts after five hours. Now, the hours of the bar are 5:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. This resulted in cut hours between the four staff members, and some still claiming unemployment compensation.
“My first unemployment check came two months in. I was begging for money on Facebook,” said Kasmiroski.
“I filed [for] unemployment on March 16. I was, maybe, two weeks without pay,” said Goughner.
Goughner described how Tiki Lounge has implemented COVID-19 safety protocols like tables being six feet apart and partitions between the booths.
“It’s really killing us because we’re primarily a dance club and people came here to have fun,” Gabig said in regard to the safety protocols instilled.
The full capacity of Tiki Lounge is 263 people, and with the 50% capacity rule that has been implemented by the Pennsylvania government, the bar does not have enough tables and booths to fit that many while following safety protocols. Tiki Lounge can allow for a capacity of about 55 people.
Another restriction Tiki Lounge has implemented is customers cannot order drinks at the bar; they must wait for servers to come to them. Goughner explained that is another element lost in typical bar life.
“[Customers] want to sit at the bar, they want to talk to the bartenders, and when you’re at the tables, you really can’t,” said Goughner.