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Bar owners are happy about later hours -- but boo jazz fest's move

Downtown bar owners are hoping the organizers of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Fest will change their mind on moving the event to Henrietta, if not this year, then next. 

Festival co-producers Marc Iacona and John Nugent announced Thursday that they plan to move the nine-day concert series to Rochester Institute of Technology, in part to adhere to current social distancing guidelines. The event attracted more that 200,000 people in 2019.

Michael O’Leary, who has owned Temple Bar and Grille on East Avenue for the last 14 years, said this year was the hardest one so far. He said he had 22 employees a year ago. Today, he has seven. Like most bar owners, the pandemic forced him to seek aid from the city, the county and the federal government just to stay afloat. 

He was looking forward to the jazz festival returning downtown this summer, because hopefully things would be closer to normal. 

“Any of the events that occur,” O’Leary said, “they’re great marketing for us, whether it's the St. Patrick’s Day parade or Fringe festival or jazz festival.They all help in the short term, but they also help in the long term.

“Maybe the most important part is people who don’t normally come downtown a lot, come downtown, and realize that there’s something going on down here and they’ll come back across the course of the year,” he continued.

O’Leary said he’s happy that the festival is happening at all but would like to see it back downtown next year. Other bar owners would like to see that happen too. 

Louie Maier has a similar sentiment. He’s one of the owners of several bars, including Brass, Locals Only and the Riot Room. After a tough year, all of his businesses have all reopened to some degree, but he was looking forward to the shot in the arm that the jazz festival typically brings. 

Maier said he understands that the COVID-19 pandemic forced most businesses to pivot.

“They (Iacona and Nugent) don’t owe us anything,” said Meier, "but you know, it would be nice if those who were impacted by this got to have a conversation and understand where this is going.”

Jon Swan owns six bars and restaurants in Rochester, including Daily Refresher and Swan Dive. He was surprised by the decision and agreed that the businesses in the area use festivals to attract new clientele. Swan said it's the latest blow to the neighborhood and is worried that bar-hopping downtown may be a thing of the past.

“Habits break, they're not guaranteed,” said Swan. 

“In Monroe County,” he continued, “you’re going to be really hard-pressed to find an area or a corner of a street that has been more impacted than Alexander and East Avenue. I know everybody has been impacted, but we’re talking about an area where everybody went to have fun and gather in masses that obviously couldn’t happen during COVID.” 

The neighborhood is heavy on bars, clubs, and restaurants that have faced strict social distancing protocols due to COVID-19. Swan also said viral videos from Black Lives Matter protests last summer, where some participants barged into bars and turned over tables, may be keeping some people away.

Swan does see a light at the end of the tunnel. On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that starting on Valentine's Day, bars and restaurants can close at 11 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. Swan and other bar owners said that's good for their bottom line. 

But Swan said New York state’s habit of changing COVID-19 related regulations at the last minute irks him. He said it puts undue stress on business owners. 

Whenever hours are changed, Swan said he has to contact employees and vendors to make sure he has enough staff and supplies to adapt. 

“All the logistics that we work really hard to maintain, it completely throws a wrench in it,” Swan said. 

For Maier’s bars, late nights are the biggest moneymakers, and he’s eager to get them back. He said his team has learned a lot this year and is confident that they can handle more customers without spreading COVID-19.

“We’ve come such a long way as bars and restaurants who provide safe environments and I just think we need to continue to trend toward getting open for those additional hours.”

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.