As the Independence Day holiday neared in 2020, Asheville-area breweries were in an unusual predicament. Statewide restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 meant taprooms had to operate at reduced capacities indoors and adhere to social distancing requirements both inside and out. Patrons comfortable with navigating those environments had to mask up and often follow one-way routes to the bar, where they ordered from a masked employee, likely with a plexiglass partition separating them during their touch-free financial transaction. Only when customers sat down at a table with their party could masks be removed to imbibe, almost certainly from a plastic cup.
One year later, the scene at local taprooms hasn’t quite returned to July 2019 levels, but at many businesses, it’s not far off. On May 14, in response to encouraging COVID-19 vaccination levels and decreasing infection rates, Gov. Roy Cooper lifted capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements in all settings, as well as face-covering requirements in most settings. Employers, business owners and local governments may still require safety measures, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend such precautions for unvaccinated people (including children) and for all people in large venues.
“A lot of tasting rooms have opted to keep existing signage up or adjust them to encourage or recommend mask-wearing, particularly by those who are unvaccinated,” says Leah Rainis, executive director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance.
“Whether or not staffs are being required to wear masks seems to be varied, but the thing that appears to be consistent across tasting rooms is that leadership and front-of-house staff have had team discussions around masking and capacity policies to get input and make sure folks on the front lines of service are in a position that allows them to do their job effectively and safely.”
Back to ‘normal’
Traditionally, Independence Day arrives a mere month after the busy AVL Beer Week and typically doesn’t inspire special events at local breweries; nevertheless, the industry usually experiences an uptick in traffic from tourists and off-work residents alike. This year, even without a spring Beer Week, increased attendance at breweries is expected across the holiday weekend. With important pandemic metrics improving, industry figures like Zillicoah Beer Co. co-owner Jeremy Chassner and his front-of-house staff are feeling optimistic about welcoming back larger crowds.
“Since vaccines really got rolled out in the last few months, the stress has diminished to a much more tolerable level,” Chassner says. “We recently bumped capacity up a bit, and everyone on our team is on board with that decision.”
Zillicoah reopened in June 2020 with outdoor seating but recently made available some four-top tables inside with capacity just under 30 people. Bar seating, however, remains closed, with orders still solely taken from the patio service window. In addition, employees have opted to continue wearing masks in an effort to keep themselves and customers as safe as possible.
“In turn, we’re asking customers to continue to wear masks while in line to extend that same courtesy,” Chassner says. “It’s been a long hard road, and it was never guaranteed that we would make it through. We’re feeling much more positive about the future each day, and we’re starting to have some fun again.”
Zillicoah has also returned to using glassware, as has Highland Brewing Co., though Nikki Mitchell, Highland hospitality manager, says that compostable cups may be requested by patrons in the brewery’s Meadow space. Meanwhile, the “seating circles” that kept visitors at a responsible distance from each other prior to the capacity shift are gone, allowing people to naturally spread out with their own folding chairs or blankets. On July 4, the space will host Highland’s weekly Meadow Market, noon-5 p.m., featuring an array of local vendors, plus live music from Jackson Grimm & The One String Band and Pleasure Chest.
The Meadow offers some seating in its shaded mulch areas, and the taproom’s front porch is equipped with shade sails. The taproom itself is also open, though seating remains socially distanced and, in Mitchell’s words, there’s still “a big, wide bar line” for more comfortable ordering. She adds that Highland is following CDC guidelines and not requiring masks for vaccinated patrons on an honor system. As such, the fully vaccinated staff is not required to wear masks, which she feels is resulting in a more welcoming environment all around.
“We’ve eased our way into it, and in general, our team feels supercomfortable. They’re excited to see the space being used as it was built for,” Mitchell says. “When they work in the Meadow bar, they don’t have to sweat through a mask and a plexi-shield that’s preventing airflow. These things have been a relief.”
As taproom operations return to normal and personal protective equipment is no longer needed, breweries are faced with the decision of what to do with the remaining supplies. Mitchell says that the plumbed hand-washing stations will remain in the Meadow. The plexiglass barriers and their wooden frames, however, are in storage. Upcycling or repurposing projects, adds Mitchell, are both possibilities.
Chassner notes that much of the PPE that Zillicoah invested in — namely masks and hand sanitizer — has a diminishing inventory and will continue to be used for a while. (“Eventually, we’ll get to a point where we run out, and perhaps we don’t reorder,” he says.) For other items, he and his colleagues are brainstorming what to do.
“It would be great to come up with some sort of permanent use for things like plexiglass, but we haven’t landed on an answer just yet. It’s possible some of these items will end up being stored here at the brewery for potential future use,” Chassner says. Otherwise, Zillicoah will look into depositing items at the Western North Carolina Brewery Recycling Cooperative.
Whether or not these and other safety measures are still in place when patrons visit a brewery this Independence Day weekend, brewery representatives are trusting that attendees will use their expanded taproom freedoms responsibly. Following an eventful year in which numerous compromises had to be made to encourage a return to the current more relaxed environments, such progress is worth celebrating — and preserving.