With $3.21 billion already estimated lost in Music City during the seven months (and counting) of the pandemic, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, and no plans in sight for large events benefitting the city’s massive number of musicians and artists, Nashville honky-tonk owners are facing the same kinds of tough decisions that so many small restaurant and trendy cocktail bar owners face right now.
Many people who frequented Music City in the past for its evening live music and honky-tonk scene say that because of photos they’ve seen and stories they’ve heard (including the city’s COVID-19 nickname, coined by TMZ, “No Mask-ville”), they don’t feel safe coming back to those bars just yet. But as the weather cools and the smell of pumpkin-spiced lattes fills the air, more masked bachelorettes in crisp cowboy boots and matching pink logo tees are starting to appear, standing on the backs of the party buses, tractors, and hot tub (yep) “transpotainment” vehicles that have become a familiar sight on the streets of downtown Nashville.
In the trendy city where thousands of tourists typically line Lower Broadway each day in search of hard liquor, hot chicken, and honky-tonks, it’s a tough time for business owners to navigate ethically and safely.
A honky-tonk, for those who might be unfamiliar with the term, is simply a bar that plays country music. Depending on the night of the week and who you ask, the word “honky-tonk” can elicit feelings of nostalgia and excitement or dread and utter annoyance (the latter often geared toward the number of unruly bachelorette parties that might be frequenting one at any moment).
Lower Broadway’s Acme Feed & Seed, one of the last bars on the iconic street to reopen since the pandemic, on October 1, has taken several safety measures to help tourists and locals feel safe honky-tonking on Nashville’s most popular street once again. Like several others around town, Acme monitors staff temperatures, has re-upped glove-wearing and hand-washing policies, and of course requires masks. It remains full-service and seated-only with a QR code menu system, and has upgraded its air filtration system.
Acme’s chef, Jeremy Wyatt, says that, as he suspected, the current restrictions have had an effect on business. “The safety measures are keeping our capacity much lower than it would normally be this time of year,” he says, “but we’re finding that we get a rush early in the evening as the building fills, then we settle into a nice flow as the crowd ebbs and flows throughout the night. Right now we can safely host around 300 guests at a time (100 per floor) in our building that usually holds around 1,000 on a typical weekend evening.”
When passing through downtown on a given weekend, it appears tourism is crawling back towards normal, but Nashville CVC still says there’s likely another billion dollars to be lost by end of year. A stroll down Broadway today shows Metro Nashville police officers encouraging bachelorettes, visitors, and locals who dare to venture out to wear masks, though many are already wearing them. Horse-drawn carriages, the party fire truck, and even an evangelical tractor pulling a trailer parade the streets on weekend nights once again.
TomKats Hospitality COO Lauren Morales, who owns Acme Feed & Seed, says business is down anywhere from 75 to 40 percent, depending on the day. “Being in downtown Nashville, a business/events/concert/sporting district, our weekdays have been especially slow,” she says. “We are seeing college students and some tourists on the weekends, which we are very grateful for, but the business travelers and locals are still hunkered down, which is affecting our check averages and volume.”
Morales, alongside a handful of other downtown business owners, says the majority of current customers are college-age, along with bachelor and bachelorette parties. “With sporting and concert events crowdless, folks working from home, and conventions postponed, we’ve seen a significant drop in our business and local visitors. We assume it will take some time for our regulars to fully return; it will take building confidence that they can return safely.”
Bill Miller is the CEO of Icon Entertainment, which owns popular Nudie’s Honky-Tonk on Lower Broadway, in addition to downtown dining and drinking destinations Skull’s Rainbow Room, Johnny Cash’s Kitchen & Saloon, and House of Cards. Miller says that while times have been tough, he is starting to see a return to the pre-COVID Nashville days, as far as tourism and crowds downtown go. “We will ease back into normalcy as the pandemic abates. You don’t continue to upend an entire industry once this passes. There’s no substitute for the traditional experience at camaraderie you find at your favorite venue,” he says. “It will return.”
Nashville Metro Public Health reports that as of Tuesday, October 13, there are 1,540 active COVID-19 cases in Davidson County — with 254 new cases in the last 24 hours. 284 COVID-related deaths have been reported.
Like many other bar owners, Miller says each of his Nashville establishments have been following Metro Nashville policies and taking best national practices into consideration as far as social distancing, table placement, and more. “Can the hospitality and tourism industry sustain at these levels and with these restrictions? Absolutely not. Our business models and physical locations were designed on the capacities we enjoyed prior to the pandemic,” he says. But he has confidence that those days will come back in the near future. “Once we return to those levels, our tourism will come back and Nashville will once again be triumphant,” says Miller.
Under Mayor John Cooper’s Roadmap to Reopening Nashville, the city reentered Phase Three on October 1. In this phase, Davidson County restaurants and bars can open at 50 percent capacity, with up to 100 people allowed per floor and outside area, such as a rooftop bar. The businesses must still close at 11 p.m.
Larger venues can now reopen with a maximum capacity of 500 people. These facilities must have approval from Metro Public Health before hosting an event. Transpotaintment vehicles are allowed to operate, but riders must be sitting to drink, and they must wear a mask when standing.
In Nashville, full bands are once again allowed to play (some musicians choose to wear masks on stage; obviously, singers cannot), but no standing or dancing is allowed on the dance floors of the honky-tonks or bars.
Robin H. from Hendersonville, Tennessee has frequented Nashville honky-tonks for nearly twenty years — and she said while there are glimpses of the honky-tonks she used to know, it’s just not the same. “The town needs to fully open back up. Sure, it’s great we can sit at the bar again in a honky-tonk but the no dancing and no standing rules just ruin the fun.”
For the first time, some bars are implementing a small cover charge to bridge the gap — including Acme. But as usual in Nashville, there is no shortage of artists and musicians to book.
“We’ve held ourselves to a high safety standard throughout the pandemic, and built trust that we will take care of the local artists on our stage during our frequent Acme Radio live streams during the lockdown,” says Morales, who notes they have tons of great talent for the coming season, including their house band, the Music City Toppers. They’ve implemented a small cover charge on all first-floor checks that goes directly to the artists, and were part of a live-streaming festival back in April that raised $50,000 for local musicians. “They are what makes Nashville special and keeps it unique. We have to respect that,” she says.
While the music continues to play downtown and concerts return in small venues, many owners and concert-goers agree that while they don’t have it figured out, they’re all just doing the best they can to move forward, safely.
Layla Vartanian, owner of Layla’s Honky Tonk on Broadway, a classic Nashville spot for bluegrass fans with bands playing nightly below a ceiling lined with vintage license plates, didn’t comment on statistics or how the pandemic affects her popular honky-tonk, but she says her plans for the future are simple. “My plans for the future are to just keep going as I am — stay safe, be careful, wear a mask, and trust in the Lord.”