The primary evening with out masks in Oakland’s bars

When San Francisco-born Etanisia and her friends are looking to have a memorable evening, they usually start at the Apt. C, a lounge bar and restaurant on 89th Avenue and International Boulevard. “We always come here to celebrate,” she says.

They had a lot to celebrate Tuesday night, with California officially lifting most of the COVID restrictions, including easing mask requirements, social distancing requirements, and capacity limits for indoor businesses.

Many Oakland residents responded by going to bars across town for a drink and their first maskless night in over a year.

Oaklandside ventured out too, visiting six different establishments in Deep East Oakland, San Antonio, Laurel, North Oakland and Downtown during the evening, where we spoke to bartenders and guests who were witnessing the moment.

6:30 p.m., apt. C Bar Lounge, 8916 International Blvd.

Inside apt. C, a longstanding bar in deep East Oakland. Ricky Rodas

The long-standing regulars of the Kiez classic, which had been established for decades, were happy to be back in their old quarters. Rust-red wall panels and red ceiling lights created a relaxed atmosphere when bartender Sharie G. poured cocktails for faces she hadn’t seen since March last year.

The guests sipped their drinks while The Notorious BIG’s “Juicy” boomed through the ceiling speakers. A customer who came in right at the beginning of the song sang the opening line: It was all a dream!

Tuesday was the first day of Apt. C has been open since the COVID restrictions were first announced almost a year and a half ago. “This little dive bar is still there and it’s unbelievable,” said Sharie G., “and that’s because of the customer support.”

Earl McLoud, the bar manager, told Apt. C was able to reopen after such a long hiatus, also because they own the property. “It’s a blessing because this place has been around for years,” said McLoud.

Bar staff frequently hosted toy rides and community meals for locals during the pandemic, McLoud said, something they hope they will continue to do after it reopens. “When this place is closed, much of the community is closed,” said McLoud.

Back at the bar, Etanisia said she felt safe because she was vaccinated, even though she still had her purse filled with a couple of masks and a face shield just in case.

But overall the mood was happy when friends and neighbors got together again. “And it’s Taco Tuesday,” Etanisia said, referring to the tacos that Apt. C staff. “We are human again”

7:15 pm, Laurel Lounge, 3932 MacArthur Blvd.

The sign outside the Laurel Lounge, a bar in the Laurel neighborhood of East Oakland.

Karley, the bartender, had her hands full running a full bar. She said the Laurel Lounge had been operating since it was first allowed for bars at 25% capacity and had been using a makeshift outdoor patio area until they could welcome guests back inside, so it was already used to the crowds. “I was so ready for [a full reopening]”Said Karley. “I was ready.”

Older men played pool in the corner while other guests lazed around in their best evening t-shirts, suits and dresses. Monick Freeman, a regular at the Laurel Lounge who sat at the bar in a gray dress and wide-framed sunglasses, said Tuesday wasn’t even a busy night. “I come out all the time and today is dead as hell,” said Freeman, adding that the patio area attracts more customers than the inside seating.

Even so, Freeman said, “It felt like it was especially important today,” and the surge in vaccinations makes them confident that Oakland nightlife can return to normal. “We are all a family, we are a community here.”

7:50 p.m., Victor’s, 551 E 12th St.

There were only a handful of people to be found at Victor’s, a quaint East Lake bar. Signs with Modelo and Pacifico beers hung on the walls, as well as a jersey from the Mexican national soccer team and a “Chivas” jersey from Guadalajara. Bittersweet ranchera music played while two men shot billiards in the back and the bartender Sonia Rivas handed beer to men who had just finished their workday.

For Rivas, reopening day began like any other of her six years working at the bar. “I didn’t even think about it,” said Rivas in Spanish. Everyone at the bar on Tuesday night was maskless, but Rivas said customers would be asked to put on masks on particularly crowded nights.

Although Rivas said the government lifted COVID restrictions was “a special day,” she didn’t expect a particularly eventful night in the bar. “Tell people we’re open and they should come,” Rivas said as she sat down focused on preparing her signature micheladas.

8:30 p.m., The Avenue, 4822 Telegraph Ave.

Erica Nichols, a longtime bartender at The Avenue, rushes over to a customer to hand him his drink. Photo credit: Brett Marsh

The scene at The Avenue in Temescal was eclectic – bikers, rockers, and hip twenties mingled at the bar under a cavernous ceiling, complete with man-made stalactites. Longtime bartender Erica Nichols, who has worked for 12 of the bar’s 15 or so years in existence, said she saw many 21- and 22-year-olds for their first “real” night on the avenue Tuesday. “You feel like you were robbed last year, so make it up to you,” said Nichols.

It’s amazing to see new faces and regulars come back, Nichols said. “I was nervous at first, but it’s so good to see old faces,” she said. “It will be one of those summers that will go down in history.”

While Nichols raced up and down the bar serving drinks to a steady stream of customers, Bill Tunstall sat on a bar stool enjoying a cold beer. “I’m celebrating because we can talk to each other in person again,” said Tunstall. “We can be more friendly and open with one another.”

“People are still scared,” added Tunstall, “but I like talking to people without a mask.”

10:40 p.m., White Horse Inn, 6551 Telegraph Ave.

A long line of guests waits to purchase drinks at the White Horse Inn, a historic North Oakland gay bar. Ricky Rodas

Considered the country’s oldest gay bar, the White Horse Inn was in full swing on the day it reopened when a mix of students and regulars flooded the historic establishment for a karaoke night. A single bartender did his best to pour drinks for a growing number of customers.

Anne Parsons, a visiting student from Australia, said she was still a little concerned about being in a maskless crowd of more than 60 people but felt confident enough to go out. “It’s pretty unsettling to be in a group of people without masks,” she said, “but knowing how COVID is spread and how vaccines work, I feel pretty safe.”

Parsons was excited to hang out with her friends on a night she thought was significant, but Brandon Camarillo wasn’t convinced of the idea that the reopening was special. “I just wanted a drink after work,” said Camarillo, still masked. “This is not an iconic moment.”

11:30 p.m., The Port Bar, Broadway 2023

At Port Bar, a popular LGBTQ bar in downtown Oakland. Ricky Rodas

As the night drew to a close, downtown Port Bar was still full of customers wanting one last drink. Bartender Dino Moreno said staff served customers “non-stop” on Tuesday, despite saying the bar’s outdoor terrace was full during the pandemic.

Arnoldo Ruiz, who lives nearby, said he went out that evening to celebrate the reopening and support one of his favorite queer bars in the area. “It feels great that I am fully vaccinated and not have to wear a mask,” said Ruiz. He said life “felt relatively close to what it was before”.

At 11:50 PM, Dino and his fellow bartenders prepared to close, but not before serving a final round of shots to a few bar patrons. One of the last songs of the night booming over the bar’s speakers was “Juice” by Lizzo, and the attendees finished their drinks while the artist sang the chorus: It’s not my fault I’m out here to To make news; I’m the pudding in the proof; I have to blame my juice for it.

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