'I want [customers] in here, but at the same time it's scary'

In recent weeks, Tara Mayer has arrived early for most of her shifts tending bar at Ledo’s Tavern in Old North, first washing her hands and then staking out a seat somewhere off in the wings to survey the scene. “That way I can kind of calm myself,” she said, “and see that everything is manageable.”

Mayer returned to work after stay-at-home orders were lifted and bars resumed indoor service on May 21, and has been navigating this new reality in the weeks since. Initially, Mayer said, there was a period of reacquaintance, with staff members and patrons navigating similar discomforts with returning to a familiar space in deeply unfamiliar times. “It was nerve-wracking going back to work, at least on my part, but in reality the first two weeks back working my regular shifts were really calm,” Mayer said. “Everyone coming in was really nervous, including the patrons, and everyone wanted to make an effort to follow the rules.”

Gradually, though, customers started to let some behaviors slide, particularly as the alcohol took hold. Larger groups started gathering without masks. People ignored established rules about waiting for staff to clean and sanitize tables between customers. One unmasked man openly coughed on the bar. “We were just getting more and more exposed to people,” Mayer said. 

These anxieties grew in recent weeks as service industry folks increasingly contracted COVID-19, with employee illnesses leading to temporary closures at a fast-growing list of places such as Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in Grandview, Barcelona in German Village, The Pearl in Dublin and Daddy’s on the South Side. (Mayer said that no one at Ledo’s has contracted the virus.)

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

“It’s something industry staff have talked about: If [rules] can’t be upheld then why are we open?” Mayer said. “It’s still a health crisis. It’s still a dangerous situation. … The mental toll being back at work, it’s a whole new level of anxiety that I’ve never experienced in my life. I want people in here, but it’s scary. It’s been a lot of learning to be gentle with myself.”

In normal times, music serves as a primary stress reliever for Mayer, who plays keyboards in post-rock band the End of the Ocean. But amid stay-at-home orders and social distancing, Mayer hasn’t so much as rehearsed with her bandmates since March, which has forced her to turn to a combination of reading, exercise and CBD oil to manage these new anxieties.

On the plus side, Mayer said wearing a mask at work has made it easier to disguise the occasional smirk when a patron makes a dumb crack, and she remains hopeful that Mayor Andrew Ginther’s recent mask mandate, strengthened by a City Council vote, might curtail the more careless behaviors that had started to develop among some customers. “I’ve only worked one shift since that mandate went in, but I did notice that undercurrent of anxiety I had about exposure went down,” Mayer said.

Mayer’s struggles mirror what many patrons feel navigating favored bars and restaurants in the time of the coronavirus. Customers have a desire to support neighborhood businesses, which have been devastated financially by shutdowns and occupancy restrictions, but also struggle with the awareness that one’s presence could be potentially damaging to the health of its workers.

“Trust me, I’ve thought about that as a bartender, but also as a patron over at O’Reilly’s,” Mayer said of the Clintonville bar, which she has visited a handful of times in recent months. “I know they need customers. They’re going to be open right now, and they need to make money. The few times I’ve gone out, I know the rules and I’m going to follow them. And then I’m also going to put my money where my intentions are, and I’m making sure that I’m taking care of those bartenders, because they don’t always have the best customers that come in. If you can be that shining example of how things can be done … that’s the best anyone can do right now.”