One year after shutdown, Iowa restaurants, bars celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

By: - March 17, 2021 11:14 am

Magee’s Irish Pub in Ankeny decorated the plastic dividers between tables with St. Patrick’s Day decals. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day 2020, Trevor Perez stood on a barstool in Magee’s Irish Pub & Eatery and asked everyone to leave.

“I told all our customers that, due to COVID, we had to close at noon,” he said. “(I was) watching all those people saunter out the door and all our sales just go down the drain.”

That was the start of a 10-week closure for Iowa bars, marking for many the beginning of “quarantine.” Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the shutdown of bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters on the morning of March 17, 2020. The order took effect less than two hours after it was announced.

Perez, a manager at Magee’s, said he turned immediately to third-party delivery apps to offer the bar’s burgers and brunches for carryout as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Iowa.

“Being in the restaurant industry at this time last year, we didn’t know everything that was going on… We didn’t know what was happening,” Perez said.

Now, one year later, the Ankeny bar is prepared to host its first full St. Patrick’s Day. Massive TVs shine down from behind the bar, the glare reflecting off plastic sheets with leprechaun decals that divide the heavy, wooden tables and sections of bar stools. The bar will keep social distancing measures in place, Perez said, but he expects a crowd.

“We already have people that are going to be here at 9 a.m., waiting for us to open,” he said.

Iowa restaurants adapt over a year of restrictions


Restaurants and COVID: A Comprehensive Timeline

March 8, 2020 – The first 3 COVID-19 cases are detected in Iowa.

March 11, 2020 – The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.

March 17, 2020 – Reynolds orders all bars and restaurants to cease dine-in service. Gyms, casinos, theaters and other businesses must close.

March 24, 2020 – The first Iowan dies of COVID-19.

March 27, 2020 – President Donald Trump signs the CARES Act, a $2 trillion relief package. That included the first round of Paycheck Protection Program loans.

April 3, 2020 – The Department of Labor reports that the restaurant industry nationally lost 417,000 jobs.

May 1, 2020 – Restaurants in some Iowa counties are allowed to open dining rooms at 50% capacity.

May 28, 2020 – Bars can reopen with limited capacity and distanced seating.

Aug. 27, 2020 – Reynolds orders bars in six counties to close temporarily.

Sept. 16, 2020 – Bars reopen in Polk, Dallas, Linn and Black Hawk counties.

Oct. 2, 2020 – Bars reopen in Johnson and Story counties.

Feb. 7, 2021 – Reynolds lifts all mandatory distancing and mask requirements at restaurants and bars.

March 11, 2021 – President Joe Biden signs the $1.9 trillion relief package that includes the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion program for restaurants.

Iowa restaurants were closed for dine-in service from March 17, 2020, until early May, dependent on county cases. Bars stayed closed an additional month, reopening at a limited capacity on May 28.

During those initial weeks, bars and restaurants could offer carryout and delivery services. Many metro restaurants adjusted their menus to be more to-go-friendly. Some overhauled their offerings altogether: Small plates restaurant Harbinger sold fried chicken as pop-up Basic Bird, and St. Kilda Surf & Turf in the East Village rebranded as Franka Pizzeria — now opening a second location — to peddle artisan pizzas.

Another big winner of the early pandemic: restaurants with outdoor spaces. The Des Moines City Council in June approved a program to allow restaurants to expand service into their parking lots and sidewalks, creating makeshift outdoor seating while complying with capacity restrictions inside.

Rita’s Cantina opened in June and saw immediate success on its colorful, sunny patio. But owner Jeff Bruning said Rita’s saw the “worst, significant drop” when the weather got cold. 

“Sunny days outside, that’s when we’re going to be most popular,” he said. “This wintertime was really weird, so it’s hard to say.”

Bruning is an owner of Des Moines restaurant group Full Court Press which runs over a dozen restaurants in the metro. He said the pandemic was a challenge, but his properties were poised to come out of it unscathed while others might not have been as well prepared.

“… I don’t see how some restaurants made it,” he said.

Bars faced additional restrictions as the summer ended and COVID-19 cases shot up in Iowa. On Aug. 27, Reynolds closed bars in six counties with high positivity rates. Some stayed closed for just three weeks, while bars in Iowa’s college towns were shuttered until October.

Riley Drive Entertainment, a Kansas-based restaurant group that owns several bars around Des Moines, filed a lawsuit against the state after the second closure, but a judge denied them a temporary injunction. Scott Anderson of Riley Drive Entertainment said in December the closures could put at least one of his bars out of business. It didn’t take long: Saints Pub + Patio Beaverdale seemed to close permanently in February, the Des Moines Register reported.

Anderson and other bar owners appealed the judge’s decision in December, taking the case to the Iowa Supreme Court

Another tavern owner also filed a lawsuit against the state. Amy Culp, owner of Mudders Tavern in Minburn, alleged that the emergency proclamations violated Culp’s constitutional right to due process and equal protection.

Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state epidemiologist, said she advised Reynolds to introduce the additional bar closures in the fall.

“The loud environment in many bars can lead to people huddling more closely and talking more loudly, which can increase transmission of COVID-19,” she said in an affidavit for the state. “Alcohol also lowers inhibitions which can make patrons less likely to follow public health recommendations such as social distancing and wearing masks.”

Precautions now up to local municipalities, restaurant owners

At the one-year mark of the pandemic, restaurant owners have more independence to decide how many COVID-19 precautions to take. In early February, Reynolds lifted all statewide restrictions on eateries. Until that point, Iowa mandated that servers wear masks and restaurants maintain social distancing between tables. Now, restaurant owners are simply encouraged to “take reasonable measures … to ensure the health of employees, patrons and members of the public.”

Brian Cooney, owner of Cooney’s Tavern in Des Moines, is taking a slower approach to reopening, even at the expense of a second St. Patrick’s Day.

In March 2020, he closed the bar before the state mandated it, sensing trouble on the horizon. One year later, he decided to close his doors again on St. Patrick’s Day, concerned that there was still too much “COVID uncertainty” and not enough room for a crowd to distance.

It’s a big change from previous years, when the Irish holiday could bring in close to a week’s worth of revenue in a single day.

“You would have three people behind the bar, and this bar is not very big,” Cooney said.

Jessica Dunker, president of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said in February that the lifted restrictions were a welcome change for the industry.

“Having flexibility handed back to us, we’re very thankful for that,” she said.

However, she said, the return to a pre-pandemic normal — no masks, packed tables, crowded clubs — will still be slow, especially around cities like Des Moines.

“I think what the governor has done is say, ‘I trust you, as a business, to take the steps necessary to keep your employees and your patrons safe,’” Dunker said.

Nationally, the restaurant industry rebounds after record job losses

Nationwide, restaurant sales in 2020 were down $240 billion from expected levels, the National Restaurant Association reported. Over 100,000 restaurants had temporarily or permanently closed.

“From the beginning, we knew that the pandemic would be the worst disaster to ever hit to the restaurant industry,” said Sean Kennedy, Restaurant Association vice president of public affairs, in a March press release.

The leisure and hospitality industry saw the most job losses of any sector in April 2020. (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

At the onset of COVID-19 shutdowns, reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the “leisure and hospitality” industry saw the most job losses of any sector. In April 2020, employment dropped by 7.7 million jobs. Of those, 5.5 million were in food or bar services. 

In Iowa, restaurants lost $310 million revenue in April, with individual restaurants reporting between 70% to 90% lost profits.

But things are looking up as restaurants and bars reopen. In February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported employment in leisure and hospitality was down by 3.5 million — 20.4% — from February 2020. That sector saw the most gains in February 2020.

More money may also be on the way for Iowa restaurant owners. President Joe Biden on March 11 signed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief program. The legislation includes $28.6 billion for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a program that will provide tax-free grant money to restaurant owners.

What comes next?

Bar-goers gather at Magee’s Irish Pub & Eatery in Ankeny on the day before St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday marks one year from Iowa’s first shutdown order. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Restaurant and bar owners who have weathered the pandemic are looking ahead to brighter, safer and busier days as the vaccine rollout continues.

Bruning said the Iowa Taproom is booked for multiple weddings a week through the year. Des Moines sports tournaments have also brought business back to his downtown restaurants.

He predicts St. Patrick’s Day will be the final holiday dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s St. Patrick’s, and then it will just be summertime,” Bruning said. “And in the summertime, it will be back to normal.”

He plans to celebrate the holiday by bringing it outside with St. Patio’s Day, a ‘90s-themed outdoor celebration. At all of his restaurants, festivities will be toned down from previous years, and Bruning expected crowds to be smaller without the downtown Des Moines parade.

Cooney said, after two missed St. Patrick’s Days, he just hopes to be able to celebrate the event normally in 2022. In the meantime, it will be business as usual at Cooney’s, with precautions.

“We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every day of the year,” he laughed. “We do it every day.”

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.