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The white brick exterior of PJ’s Lager House on a cloudy day. An Irish flag hangs near the door.

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Corktown’s Bar Owners Are Cautiously Optimistic for St. Patrick’s Day

Among the first businesses to feel the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns in Michigan, Corktown’s Irish bar owners reflect on a year of struggle

PJ’s Lager House is reopening in time for St. Patrick’s Day 2021.
| Stock Detroit

Shannon Lowell flipped the calendar sheet over on March 16, 2020, at Donovan’s Pub, as he did every day he operated the bar. Then, the state stood still as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, after several chaotic days of shifting restrictions, announced the first of what would turn into many orders closing bars and restaurants for indoor service. Lowell’s Irish bar — like many casual pubs in Detroit — has been virtually frozen in time ever since.

Donovan’s sits in the shadow of Michigan Central Depot in Hubbard Richard, abutting the historically Irish neighborhood of Corktown. And, as such, the period from March through May is usually Lowell’s most profitable period of the year. On that fateful Monday when the whole nation seemed to be coming to a halt due to the newly dubbed COVID-19 pandemic, the bar had been completely stocked in anticipation of the crowds packing in on St. Patrick’s Day and Parade Day. But for the small, intimate bar and its owner, there just hasn’t been a strong enough reason to open back up at reduced capacity in the last year. Donovan’s, after all, is the type of place where people go for a beer and a shot, rather than a showy cocktail, making selling to-go drinks less realistic, and for Lowell, the risks to his staff’s health and safety were far too high.

Lowell feels a strong desire to open the Donovan’s doors in a symbolic gesture on March 16, 2021, marking the end to one year of waiting, wondering, and worrying, but he’s holding out for just a little longer. Last month, the barkeep took the decision on how and whether to reopen directly to his staff. “After some hen-pecking and dirt-scratching, we came to the conclusion that they weren’t afraid to work, they were afraid of making their loved ones sick,” Lowell says. “So, I chose to put health before profit and gave us all the mission of getting vaccinated.”

After 365 days of closures, strictures, and anxiety, PJ Ryder, who owns PJ’s Lager House on Michigan Avenue, right across from the traditional start of the parade route, is ready to mark this coming St. Patrick’s Day with a little more normalcy. For many years prior to 2020, the bar was always packed to the rafters with rowdy paradegoers, and bands played all day long on St. Patrick’s. The bar opened at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 14 — traditionally St. Patrick’s Parade Day in Detroit. But with the parade canceled for a second year in a row, 2021’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities feel anything but typical.

Ryder is looking forward to being open again for the first time in almost a year, but is also a little worried about potential crowds. “We can open at 50 percent, [but] 50 percent of capacity for us would be 75 people, and we just can’t put 75 people in that space adequately spaced. Fifty people is where we’re at,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s enough to keep the business going, but I’m going to give it a shot.”

Ryder’s “biggest fear” for the week “is that we have beautiful weather and a thousand people show up… I don’t know what to expect at all,” he says. “I’m happy to be reopening. Happy that I’m going to see some people. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m a little fearful.” His staff, he says, all have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but not all of them are fully immunized. That’s a big reason for his caution.

Ryder, whose bar was by some reports on the brink in 2020 after long-term shutdowns and at least one COVID-19 scare, says he’s spent the past year like many business owners — “chasing grants and other funds to do whatever you needed to do to keep yourself alive,” he says. “Any grant that we had a shot at, we went for it.” His efforts paid off — Ryder was able to scrape together enough grants and other public funding to keep the bar closed for most of the year — but the constant strategizing left him exhausted. “It’s trying to figure out the rules to this game, but the rules keep changing every day,” he says.

Lowell agrees that the challenge for many business owners has been letting go of some of their business autonomy and putting their fate into the hands of health experts and the government. “The difficulty isn’t reopening. That’s easy. In fact, it’s muscle memory for some of us. If we were in business, we clearly know how our businesses work,” Lowell says. “The hard pill to swallow now is the thought that we’re opening back up with others calling the shots.” He understands, though, the need for a bit more patience. “It’s important to remember that the ‘others’ calling the shots are the health department and the health and well-being of my neighbors and future customers, not the pennies of the moment. I’ve got to follow the heath, not the money,” he says.

The exterior of the Gaelic League is lit by lamps along Michigan Avenue on a cold winter night with some snow frozen to the ground.
The Gaelic League was set to celebrate its 100th anniversary last year, but was forced to cancel its annual parade shut down entirely on March 16, 2020. It reopened to members on March 5, 2021.
Gerard + Belevender

A little more than a year ago, members-only Irish-American club the Gaelic League was preparing for a major milestone: the organization’s 100th anniversary. The bar, whose members organize the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, was stocked up on Guinness, whiskey, and other beer and alcohol in anticipation of the Michigan Avenue clubhouse’s busiest week of the year when COVID-19 cases first began multiplying across the state. Eventually, a little over 72 hours ahead of the parade, the Gaelic League called off the annual celebration, throwing neighborhood Irish bars into panic. Although the club remained open on Parade Day, the executive order enacted on March 16 meant the club had to scramble to unload food without wasting it. “We donated lots of food that we had planned to use for Parade Day and St. Patrick’s Day along with our fish-fry food to St. Pat’s Senior Center,” recalls Gaelic League president Theresa Anaya.

Like Donovan’s and PJ’s Lager House, the Gaelic League Irish-American Clubhouse remained shuttered as the months of the pandemic wore on, unable to justify the risks taken with the small financial gain that a few customers would bring. “The impact of the closure during 2020 was severe,” Anaya says.

The Gaelic League has used the closure to refinish the floors, clean and organize, and revamp the gift store. The organization also launched a capital campaign, the Emerald Campaign, to commemorate its 100th anniversary and to continue clubhouse renovations. Then, on Friday, March 5, the Gaelic League reopened. Anaya is happy that the clubhouse has opened back up in a limited capacity. “Things will be different,” she says, “but we will make the best of it and have a great time.”

Ryder feels similarly about his bar’s reopening. “I’m sorry that I’m not going to be able to put three bands in here and party all day,” he says. “I’ve missed all that. It’s such a tradition, and to not do it last year and not do it this year… Now, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, at least.”

Looking back on a difficult year, Lowell is feeling cautiously optimistic about the coming weeks. The Donovan’s team is almost fully vaccinated, with a few people still waiting the two weeks after their second doses, and he’s confident that the bar will be open soon, definitely in time for Cinco de Mayo celebrations, once employees are fully immunized. He likens the wait and the emerging hope of opening to “spotting land after being lost at sea.” He adds: “Now, I truly hope we can all come together and celebrate on shore.”

PJ's Lager House

1254 Michigan Avenue, , MI 48226 (313) 961-4668 Visit Website
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