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Lessons from The Wharf: South Florida bars send mixed messages about COVID safety

On its Facebook page, Rock Bar on Fort Lauderdale beach shows the dance floor now filled with pods to encourage social distancing.
On its Facebook page, Rock Bar on Fort Lauderdale beach shows the dance floor now filled with pods to encourage social distancing. (Malcolm Mayo)

This Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, is better known to some as Drinksgiving, when tradition holds that returning college students and other visiting family members hit the town for the biggest drinking night of the year.

Confused about whether to go, where to go and what the mask situation will be? You are not alone. It’s not what the bar says, it’s what they Instagram.

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Take, for example, the saga of the Wharf Fort Lauderdale, which reopened last weekend and promptly closed two days later when crowds of unmasked guests packed the downtown bar.

The open-air venue had been remodeled to promote social distancing and a mask requirement was in place. But no one seemed to be aware — except county code-enforcement officers who cited the Wharf three times on Saturday, prompting its closure.

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Wharf co-owner Emi Guerra was surprised his guests felt empowered to congregate so closely together, and without masks.

Wharf Fort Lauderdale on Instagram, the lingua franca of Generation White Claw.

In the weeks leading up to the Wharf reopening, its Instagram account hyped the news. Plenty of lovely scenes and faces were posted, but there were no visual cues about COVID safety: no scenes of social distancing, no one shown wearing a mask.

A picture posted on Nov. 11 flaunted a venue swarmed with people, a reminder of the good old pre-COVID days.

How could the viewer not be excited? And confused.

“It’s the Wharf, always packed. But it’s outside. Full capacity, right? I don’t get it,” says Hollywood resident Travis Munn, 28, of the citations and closing. He acknowledged cruising the crowd Friday night with his mask in his pocket: “I had friends all over the place.”

Munn keeps a mask in his car “just in case,” gets his news on “social” and thinks of himself as well informed: “I know what’s going on.”

Mixed messages

But social media sites among South Florida nightlife hot spots are filled with mixed messages, at best, when it comes to COVID-safety information and what is acceptable at a particular venue.

Obviously, COVID is a buzzkill and none of the bars we surveyed went the most obvious route: pinning a clear list of rules at the top of their social media sites. Some sites ignore COVID all together, some offer subtle cues, others post pictures that are misleading.

The stylish Rooftop in downtown Fort Lauderdale creates a world of carefree, beautiful people and cocktails on its social media, and nowhere does COVID intrude on this vibe on its Instagram or Facebook pages.

You’d have to go to the Rooftop website — as young people rarely do — to see a large opening panel that explains COVID precautions in force at all properties owned by The Restaurant People. The information remains available via a dropdown bar on The Restaurant People website and it is included in the FAQ section if you burrow into the Rooftop Instagram link tree.

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Other venues known for hot crowds simply ignore the pandemic, posting pictures of cocktails, bartenders and bikini-clad loners. That category includes Nikki Beach on Miami Beach and the Wilder in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

the Wharf Miami and Rhythm & Vine in Fort Lauderdale, which feature recent posts of unmasked crowds gathered in ways you don’t expect to see as COVID cases climb.

At the Original Fat Cat’s in Fort Lauderdale’s Himmarshee District, bartender Chris Garcia says plenty of his customers still claim ignorance of simple rules like wearing a mask. The nightspot has a kept an October video on prominent display on Instagram and Facebook that shows tables spaced apart, inside and out, and an old chalk message by the door: “It’s been 6 months. Wear a mask.”

“If you want to come here, cool. I just need you to wear a mask,” Garcia says from behind a mask, while standing on the sidewalk out front.

“The Wharf is making everybody look bad right now. We’re suffering, man. Every day it’s something new,” Garcia says.

Other drinking establishments that have masked staff or guests prominently displayed on Instagram include the Tin Roof and Death or Glory in Delray Beach, and the Dubliner in Boca Raton.

The Instagram for RoundUp country-western nightclub in Davie features pictures and video of masked line dancers spaced across the floor.

‘Taking this seriously’

Distancing is another critical component in the decision of whether to patronize a business. Rock Bar on Fort Lauderdale beach addresses that concern in a gallery of pictures posted on Facebook this week that includes scenes of masked guests and an arrangement of seating pods on the dance floor. The bar has evolved into more of a restaurant due to COVID.

“People want to go out. They want to experience life again. They have to be shown that we are taking this seriously, that you can have a good time and still be respectful of the guests around you and people that work in the establishment,” says Arianne Glassman, director of marketing for Rock Bar and other beach dining and entertainment venues on the beach.

Glassman says she empathizes with the Wharf, recalling that when Blondies reopened on Fort Lauderdale beach, “it was the Wild West.”

In response she helped create a new version of the Blondie’s logo on social media, adding a mask and “WTF,” which stands for Wear the Facemask.

“The message is, we’d love to have you back, but only come back if you agree with what we’re doing. Not only are we following the county rules, but also just showing good common sense,” Glassman says.

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Backyard in Fort Lauderdale's Himmarshee District is a rebranding of the popular America's Backyard bar, with social distancing in mind.
Backyard in Fort Lauderdale's Himmarshee District is a rebranding of the popular America's Backyard bar, with social distancing in mind. (Damn Good Hospitality Group / Courtesy)

Around the corner from Fat Cat’s the iconic drinking destination known as America’s Backyard recently transitioned into an outdoor space known as Backyard, designed specifically for outdoor social distancing. On Instagram, Backyard celebrates the distance between tables and its masked staff.

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“We feel it is important to have our social-media platforms responsibly reflect the protocols that insure a safe environment for our patrons,” co-owner Jarred John says.

On Sunday, the Wharf Fort Lauderdale posted a panel on Instagram filled with an 83-word message to customers, thanking them for their support and vowing a return “when we are able to provide the proper experience.”

If the bar had used another 83 words to detail the Wharf’s COVID rules before last weekend, the venue might still be open.

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