Bar crowd on the strip

Uptown Bar & Grille on Cumberland Avenue during a night of constant rain despite the worries of COVID-19 on Sept. 24, 2020. 

For nearly five months, bars around Knoxville were closed due to COVID-19. Now open again, they face new complications as cases surrounding the university skyrocket and the campus area struggles to keep outbreaks under control. 

Regulations by the Knox County Board of Health seek to place curfews and restrictions on bars in hopes of bringing down case numbers, but these only seem to make the issues more complex as bars try to run their businesses successfully. 

Nathan Queen of UpTown Bar and Grill spoke about his experience opening his bar back up in late August, the struggles he’s faced throughout the pandemic and the measures he’s taken for health and safety. Queen and his wife own UpTown and have been in the bar and restaurant industry for 25 years. 

“We’re requiring everyone to wear a mask as they come inside, we’re taking everyone’s temperatures as they come inside, we’ve got about 13 hand sanitizer stations in the building, we’re sanitizing every surface and every door handle and we’re operating at half capacity,” Queen said. 

Yet, with just a quick drive past UpTown on a Friday or Saturday night, anyone can see the line of hundreds of students waiting to get inside the bar, with very few masks in sight. Queen also spoke at length about his feelings of responsibility to keep students safe. 

“The biggest thing to me is to provide a safe environment for everybody to come out and have a good time, and if I can’t do that, I’m not going to open my doors,” Queen said. 

Still, it’s difficult to create a safe environment during a pandemic at all, let alone one where students seem careless, openly gathering in large numbers and in close proximity outside of UpTown. 

There’s no question that COVID-19 has put an immense financial burden on bars and restaurants during this time, and Queen shared that his only financial goal is to break even this year. But where is the line drawn between financial support and reckless decision-making?

It’s important to note that the Daily Beacon reached out to multiple bars in and near Knoxville, and UpTown was the only one that was willing to interview for this article. Cool Beans, LiterBoard, The Half Barrel and The Cotton Eyed Joe all declined to either respond or interview. 

One question that’s come up time and time again over the past months: who’s to blame? Who is responsible for the increase of cases and how can this be remedied? It seems easy to believe that bars should not open at all, and this alone would decrease cases. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t that simple. 

The true question of responsibility lies in the gray area of conversations around COVID-19 and is far more complex than placing blame on any one entity. It’s not an easy question to answer, and it’s clear from the discourse on social media and during the weekly Knox County Board of Health meetings that both students and citizens are divided. 

Jordan Rogers, a senior majoring in economics, spoke about the realities of going to bars amidst a pandemic and the role that alcohol plays in decision-making; something that the Board of Health has also tried to mitigate with regulations. 

“Even if you are trying to be socially distant and wearing your mask and everything, I don’t see how anyone can actually abide by those rules after you’ve been drinking any amount of alcohol,” Rogers said. “At some point they have to acknowledge that their actions are hurting people in the long run.”

Rogers also spoke about the complex issues the UT community faces, and his opinion on the question of responsibility at this time. 

“My main worry is that the damage that’s already been done is irreparable. If the university had actually put the students’ health first and foremost, classes would have been totally online from the beginning,” Rogers said. “There’s some blame to be put on the bars, but it’s the university’s fault for allowing it to happen in the first place.”

The decisions made by UT administration have impacted students and the surrounding community greatly, and Tyra Haag, spokesperson from UT, briefly discussed administration’s support for bar regulations. 

“The chancellor has communicated with the Board of Health with regards to the bars along Cumberland Avenue. She sent a letter to the board in July, urging best practices, and on Sept. 15, spoke in favor of alcohol restrictions,” Haag said. 

Regardless of placing blame, it’s clear that students and Knoxville residents have been put in a tough situation during this pandemic, as have many people across the country. It’s important that rather than direct blame or anger, we try our best to come together as a community to protect the safety of others during this difficult time.

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