‘You Don’t Go to a Bar for the Alcohol’: Seeking Community in Quarantine

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Imagine you’re in Egypt, circa 1923. King Tut’s tomb has just been discovered, and you’re celebrating in style. There’s belly dancing, cocktails and attendees clad in their finest threads.

The twist? It’s 2020, and you’re on your couch.

Welcome to the brave new world of virtual happy hours, a business category born of necessity during the novel coronavirus pandemic. While people around the globe self-quarantine, upstarts like Shanghai Mermaid, which hosted the Egyptian-themed virtual party on May 2, unite them via Zoom or other video streaming services for digital get-togethers. Atmospheres range from theatrical nightclubs to low-key neighborhood watering holes.

These gatherings generate much-needed income for bartenders and club performers. But they also aim to provide the most intangible asset of a bar or restaurant: a sense of connection to your community.

“We don’t know when nightlife will come back. It’s a new world. So, we have to create a new way to connect with each other.” —Juliette Campbell, founder, Shanghai Mermaid

“We didn’t want to just broadcast performances,” says Juliette Campbell, founder of Shanghai Mermaid. Since 2007, she’s hosted underground parties with 1920s and ’30s themes. “We wanted to do something really creative, artistic and unusual.”

Now, she hosts hour-and-a-half virtual soirées where performers and attendees wear costumes and create custom backgrounds from film stills.

“We have lots of communities we’re part of,” says Campbell. “It transports people on the nights that we do the parties, and we’re also acknowledging what we’re all going through at the same time.

“We don’t know when nightlife will come back. It’s a new world. So, we have to create a new way to connect with each other that’s fun, entertaining and as intimate as we can be.”

Costumed woman mirror
Shanghai Mermaid transformed from roving underground club nights to costumed digital parties / Courtesy of Juliette Campbell

The vibe is slightly less theatrical at Dani & Jackie’s Virtual Happy Hour, a gathering of cocktail professionals and home bartenders eager to learn tricks of the trade. Held six nights a week, the events are free to join.

“You don’t go to a bar for the alcohol,” says Jackie Summers, writer/creator of Sorel Liqueur, who co-hosts the events with writer Daniella Veras and bartender Lauren Myerscough. “You go to a bar for the companionship. You go back to the bar for the bartender.”

Summers says that the trio aims to “create a virtual space where people could get all of the social interaction they’re accustomed to from bars while sheltering in place, and learn some things in the meantime.”

Digital Dinner Parties Provide Connection in Isolated Time

Featured guests include industry professionals who lead cocktail classes, as well as those from adjacent industries, like financial advisors and medical professionals. At a recent gathering, a psychologist spoke about the rise in unusual dreams during quarantine.

Attendees send gratuities via apps like Venmo, and bartenders keep 100% of their tips.

“It’s a virtual space with real tips,” says Summers. “We’re literally putting food in the hands of people out of work right now.”

In the last six weeks, the series has raised tens of thousands of dollars for individual bartenders, says Summers.

Zoom happy hour
Attendees send tips to the hosts of Dani & Jackie’s Virtual Happy Hour via apps like Venmo / Courtesy of Dani & Jackie’s Virtual Happy Hour

While it’s hard to recreate the magic of a dimly lit cocktail den, favorite dive or thumping nightclub, attendees appreciate the chance to connect with like-minded people.

Mayra Sierra, a visual merchandiser in Dallas, enjoys the connections that virtual happy hours provide. “There’s no stress of having to rush through traffic or waiting 20 minutes for a bartender to attend you. I’ve also become a great bartender.”

Virtual hangouts have heightened her appreciation for the effort of bartenders. “I’ve felt the need to support small businesses as much as I can,” she says.

While it’s hard to recreate the magic of a dimly lit cocktail den, favorite dive or thumping nightclub, attendees appreciate the chance to connect with like-minded people.

Lauren and John Maggio, founders of the canned cocktail company Cocktail Squad, host live music sets by regional and nationally acclaimed artists on YouTube and Instagram.

In place of a tip jar, Cocktail Squad encourages donations to Feed the Frontlines Boulder, USBG National Charity Foundation and New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Relief Fund.

“We’re a community,” says Lauren. ‘We’re not about the alcohol. We’re about bringing people together to enjoy experiences together over a great cocktail.”

The theme of digital happy hours matters less than the connections they provide, says Summers.

“The key is putting community first,” he says. “I don’t get through this. You don’t get through this. We get through this.”

Published on May 21, 2020
Topics: Drinks