Detroit Bar Culture Amid COVID

For 20- and 30-somethings, especially, there’s nothing like a summer night that starts with cool drinks and ends in a hot bar, but things look a lot different now.

Detroit bar culture
Melody Parker, Marv Neal. Photo by Lauren Jeziorski taken at The Griot, Detroit.

The night life in Detroit takes you on a ride through hole-in-the-wall bars at the Eastern Market to fancy rooftops overlooking downtown to hustle clubs with the finest ballroom dancers. And, in the end, you may wind up at a coney island with your crew discussing the events of the night. During summertime in Detroit, the party scene never stops. Millennials, especially, start their Saturdays with brunch that leads to day parties that bleed into nights at the bars and clubs that spill into the street. But, this summer, things are a little different – to say the least.

In January, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Washington state. At that time, we had no idea how serious it would become. By early March, there were at least 1,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., and the first few cases of COVID-19 or “The Rona” were confirmed in Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency.

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Under the Michigan Emergency Management Act, the state is able to help local governments “to save lives, protect property and public health and safety or to lessen or avert the threat of catastrophe in any part of the state.” Whitmer went to work signing a series of executive orders including temporarily shutting down businesses, closing K-12 schools and colleges, and limiting the number of people who could gather.

Detroit party promoter Dan Austin remembers this time all too clearly. Before the virus hit, Austin had three club residencies – Fridays at Trust Nightclub in downtown Detroit’s financial district, Saturdays at The Bosco in Ferndale and Sundays at 3Fifty Terrace, a rooftop club in downtown Detroit.

Austin says he heard about “COVID popping (its) head in Michigan here and there.” But in February, the city had just lost beloved DJ Slick B to gun violence, and people wanted to celebrate and honor his life. So it was necessary, Austin says, that “the show go on.” 

On March 16, Whitmer hit the people of Michigan with something they could have never prepared for. With 54 confirmed COVID cases in Michigan and two huge party days approaching – St. Patrick’s Day and the Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day – Whitmer ordered the closure of bars, dine-in restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and basically any place where social gatherings take place. Despite her efforts, the cases continued to increase. 

Jamila Boswell, part owner of The Griot Music Lounge in Midtown, says, “We found out via news we had to shut down. It was just as sudden for us as it was for everyone.” The Griot is a lounge with a “little hole-in-the-wall type of vibe.” The atmosphere is dim mood lighting with antique-esque furniture.

The artwork is of important African American musicians who impacted the culture line the walls and is rotated every month. In Africa, a griot is a storyteller that carries on the traditions of African culture. While both relaxing and inviting, Boswell says, “We are very secluded, but for the people who do know about us, they are loyal.”

On March 23, Whitmer issued the first stay-at-home order, meaning just that: Michiganders were not to leave their homes except for essential business. On this day, confirmed cased of COVID-19 had reached 1,328 and 15 people had died. The order was only supposed to stay in effect through April 13. 

Austin started throwing parties in high school and, by college, he was being booked to host parties at Central Michigan, Saginaw Valley, Ferris State and elsewhere. After graduating college, he said to himself, “‘Now that I have these skills and a crowd that will follow me, I have to bring that vibe to Detroit.’ It became a part of my personality.”

During the first month of the closures, Austin fell into an emotional funk. His sources of income and part of his identity was cut off, and there was nothing he could do about it. He found himself going to the liquor store more often to “ease the pain.”

By May 7, there had been over 45,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 4,000 deaths in Michigan, and Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order for the third time. Michiganders were getting antsy. Zeno Hadadean, owner of Trust Nightclub, says he and his team received countless calls, texts, emails and DMs about the multiple events they had lined up.

Before COVID, Trust was a “hype vibe” club known for birthday celebrations, elegant décor and floor-to-ceiling wraparound booths. Hadadean says they have a large variety of people that come to party with them, from those in their early 20s on Friday nights to 80-year-olds in wheelchairs on “grown and sexy” Sunday nights.

On June 1, the stay-at-home order was lifted and, week by week, more businesses were allowed to open back up. The Griot reopened their doors and were ready to serve their customers in a new way. While they were closed, loyal customers would send words of encouragement along with Cash App payments to their favorite bartenders to let them know they were supported.

They updated their food license and cut off their indoor dining. Under Whitmer’s guidelines, ordering at the bar is disallowed. They use disposable cups and, when each table leaves, it is disinfected – along with the menus. The guidelines aren’t negatively affecting the culture at The Griot because, in the summertime, patrons usually want to sit outside and enjoy the beautiful greenery and landscaping.

Boswell says, “It’s a staple for the community, and no one wants it to go away. We want to make sure the essence (of The Griot) stays and never goes anywhere. The worry of not being able to come back from the pandemic is not an issue for us. We are actually doing great, and we are grateful. In a predominantly Black city, we should have spaces where we feel safe. With The Griot, that’s what we strive to have – a space to feel safe.”

The Trust team was just as excited to reopen their doors with limited capacity at the end of the June. “We went overboard with our process. We wanted our patrons to see we are just as concerned with health and safety as they are,” Hadadean says. “We taped off the sidewalks, we cut our capacity, we offered free masks for patrons as they entered, we had mandatory hand sanitizer and temp checks as they came in.”

Management required employees to provide medical clearance. Trust tasked a team member with nothing but sanitizing door handles, bar tops, ATMs and whatever else was frequently touched. “We got great feedback,” Hadadean says. “No pushback from our customers – they appreciated it.”

Although Trust took every precaution, a few days later, on July 2, Whitmer announced that traditional bars, nightclubs and strip clubs were to close again. The decision came after a large number of confirmed COVID cases were traced back to an outbreak at Harper’s Restaurant & Brewpub in East Lansing.

Hadadean was frustrated with the closing, but he understood it. He says, “By definition, the nightclub is entirely the opposite of social distancing. People go to the nightclub for personal interaction and for that personal experience that you can only get by talking to people face-to-face, and dancing and feeling each other’s energy closely.” Under one of the biggest COVID guidelines of staying six feet apart, how could you social distance in a “normal” nightclub?

While struggling with an internal battle over whether to open the club, Hadadean and his team were carrying the business operations during the initial lockdown out of pocket. He concluded that, “People are going to celebrate and party no matter what. Rather they do it in a parking lot, a park or somebody’s backyard. They are going to get together, drink and party.”

He adds, “The governor saying no nightclubs isn’t going to stop people from partying – it’s just going to force people to party in an uncontrolled setting. I thought if we reopened and offered a proper controlled setting. We could do it in a way where we don’t become a part of the problem.”

When we speak, Trust was preparing to reopen on July 31 under restaurant and lounge guidelines, coining it the Supper Club Party edition and adhering to strict guidelines. No more than 10 people to a booth. Masks must be worn outside of the booths. And partygoers can no longer dance on the dance floor, only inside of their booths. In order to provide the patrons with a more special experience, Trust has invested in new entertainment like unique bottle presenters, major projector screens to display music videos and more.

Party promoter Austin says this summer’s party scene is nothing like last year. “Last year, people were free and open, and this year, people are standoffish and they aren’t as engaging as they usually are.” He says, “We haven’t even swag surfed in the club yet.” He notices people are sticking to the crowd they came with and aren’t branching out to meet new people.

Austin had to switch up his moves, too. He says the owner of The Bosco in Ferndale wasn’t comfortable having events, and so he is now at Society Detroit on Saturdays. In the clubs, Austin says, “Everything is lounge-based. I can’t go into the crowd to get them hype and dancing. I have to meet them where they are – in their seats.” On Sundays at 3Fifty Terrace the dance floor is closed completely, and you have to rent a booth to gain entry. 

Although summer nights look a little different in Detroit than we are used to, Detroit is a city known for making lemonade out of lemons. Austin says, “Now that things are starting to get back to whatever this is, I can say COVID opened my eyes and refocused me.” Boswell says, “It hasn’t been too bad. A lot of people took the time to regroup, step back, relax. It was so important for people to take time to be still.”

We are in a global pandemic, but birthdays are still happening, graduations are still being held, celebratory moments have not stopped. What will come of the rest of the summer? Hadadean says, “The proof is in the pudding, so we will see.”  

Photo taken by Lauren Jeziorski at The Griot, 66 E. Forest Ave., Detroit. As this issue went to press, The Griot was open for patio service only Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. 

Jasmine Graham is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer.

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