The story below is the first in a series on America’s small businesses, their struggles under the shutdowns, and what they’re doing to survive. Names and locations below have been obscured to protect the people who spoke with us from government retaliation. Over two weeks, The Federalist is traveling the country to tell more stories like this one.
THE NEVADA DESERT — Sonny moved to this little mining town to work the oil rigs in the ’90s, leaving the timber regions of northern Idaho Panhandle behind “’cause the pay was sh-t up there.”
“My Uncle Frank had a trailer house down there that he’s living in and I showed up at his place,” he tells The Federalist. “But he wasn’t there — he was up in Montana hunting elk — so I just broke into his house and stayed there for a couple of days. Pretty soon, he shows up, driving up along the street and he’s got his Jeep and his trailer, and I just opened up the door and say, ‘Hey Frank, you want a beer?'” He stayed with Frank a few months, but has made the town his home ever since.
At a healthy and hearty 60, he’s been a stone-cutter, a trucker, a landlord, a hotelier, and now he and his family own a bar. In fact, it’s the same bar they met at. “We were married in 16 weeks, owned this place four years later.”
Sonny had never spent much time in bars and certainly was never behind one, but she had. It was a total dump, overrun by open drug use of every kind, fights every night — “the kind of place a single girl would never walk into.”
More than 10 years later, they’ve cleaned the place up, kicked the violent men and addicts out, put in pool tables and a jukebox, opened a cafe, and became one of two bars left in a town of just over 2,000, catering to miners, contractors, construction workers, and passing travelers. “Single girls walk in here just fine,” he smiles. “It’s pretty nice.” He’s right.
They employ four people but were shut down by Democrat Gov. Steve Sisolak for two months, working hard and doing everything possible to keep the wolves from the door. They applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and “got a little of what we asked for, but it wasn’t nearly enough.” They applied for the second round too, but no more luck.
Sonny asked longtime bartender Christine to pour me a shot and proudly said he’s not taking it anymore.
“We were shutdown for almost two months and we had people that had been with us for years, and we kept them employed. So finally, I said to the [bar owner] next door, ‘We’re gonna open this up. You going to open up?” The man down the road agreed to, so Sonny told the sheriff, who said they weren’t going to enforce the order and keep him closed.
Do the townspeople know? How does word get out?
“We’re a town of [a little over 2,000 people],” Sonny tells me. “People knew the day we opened and they came down. They’re just happy to have the bar back.”
A committeeman swung by next, Sonny recounts. “And he said, ‘Thank you for opening up.'”
Sonny’s family are entrepreneurs. His wife handles much of the business side, his daughter, who used to work the bar, swung by to supervise us with her husband, who works at the mine, and the handsome family puppy, Jack. Nowadays, Sonny says, laughing over a Budweiser, he’s his own favorite regular.
An open bar flouting the governor’s seemingly unending closure order doesn’t advertise itself on Google. Sonny sure would like to, but his wife and daughter counsel against it.
We found it by lucky chance, pulling off the road a few hours ahead of Monday’s cold desert rain and a few hours shy of the hot desert dust storms, in the heart of Nevada’s gold country. We were looking for wings and hoping for a beer, but the woman at the kitchen counter, who’d been working there since they opened it, said it was takeout only.
“How would I socially distance these tables?” she asks, gesturing to a small, diner-like seating space for about 40 in normal times.
“Do you sell beers to go?”
“Right through there she might,” she gestured toward a door on the side.
Through those doors lies the first functioning, serviced, old-fashioned bar I’ve seen outside an airport. (Funny how the governors of Virginia, Illinois and California closed every establishment but those serving to sweatpants-and-mask-clad travelers about to pack into a plane and share recycled air for a few hours. Flyers’ anxiety, I guess.)
For most, lunch is over and it’s hours ’til dinner. The bar isn’t filled, but the few folks who’d pulled up greeted us with waves and big smiles. It’s the perfect place to crack a couple of icy, long-neck bottles. We’ll have a few.
Antonio is a local and a regular. He’s got to head home to get groceries and settle down before work in the morning, but before he leaves he wants to tell us his story.
He moved from Mexico 37 years ago, and to Nevada two years after that. He was an illegal alien, but he’s legal now, settling in this little town with his family, including a now-grown son and two daughters. “I work hard,” he says, “work very hard. I have a message for our president.”
He looks around nervously and a little buzzed, though he knows and trusts everyone but the Washington reporter with a camera he’s speaking to right now.
“I love Trump. I love the president.”
It’s an unpopular opinion among the Mexican-American community, he knows. One or maybe two Budweisers later, I take a picture of Antonio as he lifts his up beer in a toast.
It’s not an unpopular opinion out here. At all. But he isn’t the only one who should be worried, as it’s still legal to like the president but it probably isn’t legal to go against the governor’s explicit order against serving patrons at your bar.
“So out here, people are pretty independent,” Sonny explains. “Then, you have to be independent out here because it’s not like being in a bigger town — you have to just figure stuff out, you have to be self-reliant, you can’t just go out to get it fixed, you have to be an independent people. … I’ve got a couple of [commercial] trucks and when things break down, have to figure out how to get it going. A lot of times you’ve just got to find some iron and start welding.”
Gesturing to the long and beautiful wooden bar, he beams. “We just built this two weeks ago, three weeks ago. We just built it because we needed a new bar.”
The governor’s “reopening” is in “phase one,” which includes some restaurants, like the one we ate at the night before, but not bars. Main Street business in most states, particularly Democratic ones, is at a near standstill. Christine behind the bar says she was supposed to be flying out that night to celebrate her 60th birthday with her brother back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she’s from, but it’s indefinitely delayed. There’s just no telling anymore.
Sonny started buying up property during the 2001 financial crisis when gold dropped to $260 an ounce and real estate in the area plummeted. He started with a couple of properties, later expanding to a rundown hotel he now runs as a boarding house for vising miners and contractors. The government initially tried to shut that down as well, he says.
“When they first started shutting everything down, I told my wife, ‘I’m not, I’m not kicking out people, I’m not shutting that down …That’s my way.’ I said, ‘If they want to come down there, kick these people out, they have nowhere to go, [nowhere] they’re going to go.”
It’s not easy. Sonny is eager to let the world know he’s open and tell them about his little country bar, but it’s dangerous to cross the governor. More and more, though, from Virginia’s beaches to the mountains up north to right here right now, people are coming to a consensus: Their governors’ shutdowns are over. This isn’t surprising. In the United States, the shutdowns would always end when the citizens said they did.
“My uncle, he had a bar up on Montana, retired in the 70s” he says. Montana’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, has been one of the most draconian despite the low population density and low level of coronavirus. “Our governor is the biggest -sshole of them all,” one large Montana land-owner messaged me Monday.
“I just talked to my uncle this morning,” Sonny continues. “He’s in a little cowboy town, and he just told me they’re open too. Of course they’re open. … They’re old school.”
The local sheriff isn’t enforcing there, either.