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Columbia bars adjust expectations for COVID-haunted Halloween Saturday night

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Halloween time. Vibrant colored drinks with cauldron of candy

COLUMBIA — Credit Tin Roof and The Senate for looking on the bright side.

“Some good has come out of the scariest year yet,” proclaims the Facebook event for the Oct. 31 block party at the conjoined live music spots in the Vista. “Halloween is on a Saturday this year, and we aren't going to waste this gift!”

The Halloween Block Party will begin outdoors with live music and move to an indoor concert by an Ozzy Osbourne cover band with the audience seated at tables.

“I think people are getting a little more comfortable going out,” said Derrick Osborne, the Tin Roof regional manager who oversees the chain’s Columbia bars. “I imagine the special event of it being on a Saturday night will help us out a lot. I still don’t expect it to or have any illusions that it’ll be bigger than any Saturdays before.”

As with Osborne’s clubs, the difficulties of an ongoing pandemic won’t stop Columbia bars from celebrating Halloween. And while circumstances remain stacked against them, the holiday might be the first bright spot since the year turned upside down for the local drinking scene.

Still, it’s not all good news. With Halloween landing on Saturday, bars would usually be anticipating huge nights. But with the COVID-19 pandemic simmering on, bars are prepping for reimagined events that draw in smaller crowds than All Hallows’ Eves past.

In years past, the costumed holiday has had a tangible impact on bar business in the United States — as shown by a 2019 analysis of credit card info from 3,000 bars by small business data firm Womply. The firm found that, depending on the day the holiday landed, it made a strong difference.

“Halloween does appear to move the needle when viewed from this perspective,” the company’s analysis reads. “This suggests that during years where the holiday falls mid-week, bars may be less likely to have a single ‘huge’ day, but rather above-average sales over the course of several days.”

Whether it’s a one-day spike or one spread over several days, it’s desperately needed as South Carolina bars continue to deal with Gov. McMaster’s mandate that they cease alcohol sales at 11 p.m. Owners have repeatedly spoken out against the measure, with the state’s Restaurant and Lodging Association joining them in vocal opposition.

In August, Tony Fusaro, owner of the downtown nightclub PT’s 1109, said that the order was crippling businesses like his.

“Columbia is a late-night town,” he asserted. “It’s been that way for a long time. The bulk of our business has been done between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.”

That sales cutoff will hamper The Senate and Tin Roof, where a normal Halloween would have found them selling drinks far longer into the night. With last call coming at 10:30 p.m. and his bars typically closing at the same time as the 11 p.m. alcohol cutoff, Osborne reported that it has definitely been a blow, especially at the Tin Roof, which like PT’s is a late-night destination.

To try to make the best of things, Osborne’s bars will make this year’s block party an afternoon-into-night affair.

“We’re trying to spread the entertainment,” he said. “The curfew definitely hurts, having to be closed down three hours earlier than we used to.”

The Five Points Association, which oversees the neighborhood adjacent to the University of South Carolina that’s home of numerous college bars, typically promotes a big neighborhood event, asking local shops and other non-nightlife businesses to stay open later and allow families to trick-or-treat in an effort to prime what is typically a huge night for the district. But not this year.

“We are always, as a board and as an association, looking for ways to bring people to Five Points,” offered Kelsey Hennighan, the association’s executive director. “I would say that anything that’s going to gather, where we can’t control social distancing, we just haven’t been promoting.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood has been so cautious. Pavlov’s, one of Five Points’ most popular college nightlife destinations, recently came under criticism for drawing a large crowd on its first night after reopening earlier this month, just days after McMaster removed occupancy limitations on restaurants and bars.

For its part, the Five Points Association will stay out of headlines by not hosting an event, hoping to limit crowds while recommending that neighborhood businesses do the same, Hennighan said.

The Middleton family, which owns several bars and restaurants on the 1600 block of Main Street, will similarly look to limit the crowd at their own Halloween festivities.

The family’s businesses on the block will only host ticketed events for the evening, including a “Mask”-erade Ball at The Main Course, where attendees are encouraged to incorporate personal protective equipment into their costumes.

Each of the events will be capped far below each venue’s max capacity, reported co-owner Sara Middleton, adding that each is expected to bring in 100 or less people, though that may be adjusted depending on how health statistics develop during the next two weeks.

“Halloween is (the) first holiday where people are starting to feel safer going out,” she said of the logic that is guiding the Middletons’ approach. “What can we do to let people have fun but do it in a safe way?”

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