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‘I want to see all you kids again’: South Bend student bars adapt to the changing social scene during pandemic

| Friday, September 11, 2020

The first Saturday home game of the Notre Dame football season normally brings a swell of students clad in green and gold to the bars in South Bend. With this year’s home opener also comes a source of hope for establishments that have historically served students from the tri-campus community, as state orders and University health and safety guidelines regarding the pandemic have kept students mostly out of the local night scene.

Mia Marroquin | The Observer

The interior of Finnies Next Door, also known as Newfs, on a Saturday night. Newfs is known for their mini replica of Notre Dame’s iconic golden dome.

Most bars have seen a drastic drop in student patrons, and for those whose clientele is mostly Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross students, this decline has been especially damaging to business.

The changing demographic was noticeably apparent over the two-week period that Notre Dame returned students to online learning, and all three institutions in the tri-campus implemented tighter restrictions on nonessential travel off campus and threatened disciplinary action towards those who violated COVID-19 safety policies.

Notre Dame senior Jack Zinsky said he hasn’t been to the bars this semester in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. He worries that behaving otherwise will result in another spike in positive cases.

“I haven’t been going, not because I’m afraid of getting the virus, but because I don’t want to get it and unwittingly spread it to other students, which could send us home,” he said in an Instagram direct message.

Saint Mary’s senior Anna Sartori is student teaching this semester, and said she has been staying away from the local bars to keep her students safe.

“I need to be extra careful because I am bridging between the Saint Mary’s community and my elementary school, so I am limiting leaving my apartment for any reason, and especially gathering in large crowds,” she said in an Instagram direct message.

Sartori is also struggling to trust other students with the responsibility of doing their part in the fight against COVID-19.

“I feel that people aren’t following social distancing or keeping to only their family circle,” she said. “I really want to go out, but I don’t think it’s safe and I want to stay in-person as long as possible, so I’m doing everything in my power to help that situation.”

Mary Grace Noteman, also a senior at Saint Mary’s, is a Type 1 diabetic. Her roommate is immunocompromised, and both have decided not to visit the bars.

“If we get sick, things could get really bad for us,” Noteman said. “We’re also both in different field placements for our majors, so we want to protect others around us outside of the Saint Mary’s community.”

The Linebacker Lounge, popularly known as the Backer, has been following Indiana state guidelines regarding mask wearing and socially distanced seating, as well as sanitization. Without the same student patronage this semester, however, manager Paula Walsh said business has slightly declined.

“It’s down a little bit, but everybody’s business is down,” she said. “It’s a crazy world, and I know every bar in town is doing what they can to make it a safe environment. We are constantly spraying, disinfecting and wiping. We’re doing everything that we can to make them feel comfortable.”

Regular customers at the Linebacker Lounge have been keeping business afloat, Walsh said, but in the end, the Backer will always open its doors to the tri-campus community in South Bend.

“You always depend on your regulars, and our regulars have been coming in, staying and helping the business,” she said. “Of course, the students have a lot to do with this bar because it’s a student bar.”

And students are slowly starting to return, Walsh added, saying that a “handful” of students made an appearance this past weekend. This number may grow as Notre Dame football returns.

Until then, the Linebacker Lounge will continue to take every precaution, Walsh said.

“I want to see all you kids again,” she said.

Nick Hensley, the owner of The Blarney Stone — also called Original Finni’s, Old Finni’s or Olf’s — said his bar has been closed for 98% of the pandemic. On March 16, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb ordered all bars and restaurants to pause in-person services. Establishments offering food began focusing their efforts on delivery and takeout options, but local bars such as the Blarney Stone could only close their doors and settle into a waiting game.

“We closed down in March when the students went on spring break last semester, and pretty much stayed closed until the first week that students came back,” Hensley said. “We opened that weekend, and we deep-cleaned the bar, sanitized, put all the regulations in place. And we had maybe 20 students all weekend, so we decided to shut down.”

Though locals do visit the Blarney Stone, Hensley said the bar primarily considers itself a student establishment. Over the past five years, students have contributed around 90% of the bar’s business, he added.

“We’re pretty much a student bar, we don’t go out of our way to find other avenues for business anymore,” he said. “I’ve learned after watching many other bars that it’s a balancing act. It’s hard to have students and locals. So our focus has always been on keeping students safe and focusing on that clientele.”

With students taking a step back from the normal night scene in South Bend, the Blarney Stone has lost a majority of its business. They’ve had to scale back and cut costs on everything, Hensley said, especially after remaining closed for almost six months.

Most of the staff at the Blarney Stone are considered part-time, and hold other jobs outside of the work they do in the bar. Hensley said they’ve been able to mostly maintain the same staff numbers despite the closure, but he hasn’t ruled out losing some workers along the way.

“We’ve been able to weather the storm, but everybody’s getting restless,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of the staff members for many years and they’re anxious to get back out there.”

Hensley plans to reopen the Blarney Stone for the upcoming weekend, hoping that game day will reinvigorate the night scene. The bar will continue to follow state and county rules regulating capacity and enforcing heightened sanitization.

If the bar staff can keep the bills flowing and break even by the end of the night, the weekend will have been a success, Hensley said.

“We’re just looking to try to open back up … and just make it to next year,” he said. “I have a feeling if we can make it to next semester, things are going be looking a lot different. We want to be here for the students. I think we’ve been known as the senior bar for as long as we’ve been around. We’re just hoping that people in small groups can come in, socialize a little bit and still stay safe.”

Rick Ruszkowski is the managing partner of Finnies Next Door, considered the younger sibling to the Blarney Stone, and known to student patrons as New Finnies or Newf’s. Famous for the miniature replica of the Golden Dome in the center of the main bar, as well as the extensive upstairs addition and smoke-filled dance floor, Finnies Next Door was originally a First Horizon Bank before Ruszkowski and his wife Chrissy purchased the property and started renovations.

Since its opening in 2015, Finnies Next Door has successfully served both the local and student communities in South Bend. The establishment closed alongside others in South Bend following the governor’s order in March, and stayed closed for about four months, opening briefly during the summer. Ruszkowski said he has never seen things look quite as desperate as this year.

“Couldn’t even imagine this,” he said.

Finnies Next Door has implemented the state mandated safety precautions of limiting capacity and requiring masks upon entering. The four-step cleaning process that the bar has always used — including multiple uses of soap and bleach — has proven sufficient in maintaining a level of sanitization, during the pandemic and otherwise. They’ve also changed the layout to adhere to and encourage proper social distancing.

“Tables, chairs, barstools — we’ve taken everything away,” Ruszkowski said. “So it’s completely open. We’ve also currently eliminated use of the second floor, unless it’s for reservation or a private party.”

Finnies Next Door is now open only on Fridays and Saturdays to limit exposure, but Ruszkowski said few students have been present this semester. However, the bar has seen an influx of out-of-state patrons from Michigan, as well as more local residents.

The health department has limited local establishments to 50% of their normal capacity, up to 250 people. Though Ruszkowski said Finnies Next Door has hosted that many people in a few nights over the previous weeks, he noted that none were students.

As a businessman, Ruszkowski said he would love to have students back in full force; but as a member of the community and a father to his college-aged children, he said he encourages students to stay safe and healthy by following the guidelines established within the tri-campus.

“From our perspective, the students are following the guidelines that Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s, Holy Cross and even IUSB set out for them,” Ruszkowski said. “We’d love to see the students for a full year, and if I have to sacrifice a few weeks for the students to follow the rules and try to distance, stay at home or do what they need to do so that we can have a normal school year, I mean, absolutely. The students are more of a family to us now.”

Even before the pandemic, from its original opening in 2015, the first priority at Finnies Next Door is student safety, Ruszkowski said. He recalled how at the end of a normal night, he would often stand outside the door — in rain, sleet and snow — to make sure students got into their Ubers safely.

The absence of students is hurting business, Ruszkowski said, but in the long-term, it’s a pain he’s willing the bear.

“We’ll be better for it,” he said. “And I appreciate everything that students are doing to try to curb the spread of [the virus]. We’re going to be here for them. If everybody does their share for a couple weeks … we’re going to be okay. And there’s been a lot of rumors that we were going to close down and we weren’t going to be able to reopen, but I promise you that we are going to be there as a student bar when the students are able to come back out and support us.”

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