One Year Ago, Downtown Cincinnati Had A True 'Last Call'
By mid-March last year, we all knew things were about to change. Some employers were setting up work-from-home arrangements for employees. Traffic patterns in downtown Cincinnati, where I've lived for the last 13 years, reflected that. Events big and small were getting canceled. People were giving each other more personal space in public.
Italy had gone into total lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus in early March, and people in Cincinnati were wondering if it would happen here. Toilet paper was becoming hard to find.
On March 13, the Cincinnati area confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 - four family members in Butler County were sent home to recover. The Cincinnati Hamilton County Public Library announced it would close to in-person services until April.
On the morning of March 14, I went out with a friend because I thought it might be the last time we could for a while. I walked up to Over-the-Rhine to meet him for breakfast and noticed right away that Findlay Market was almost empty. Saturday mornings were usually busy around the market, but not this day.
The manager at Dunlap's mentioned she'd probably close after we left because business was so slow.
We stopped at the OTR Cigar store, where they were handing out toilet paper rolls with every purchase. By midmorning, foot traffic at Findlay still hadn't picked up. We decided to hoof it Downtown to see what the rest of the city was like.
The weather wasn't great, but it was seasonal: cool, but above freezing. Skies were cloudy with some drizzle, and maybe that had something to do with the lack of people in Washington Park or on Fountain Square; both were like the city streets: nearly empty.
We stopped in McCormick and Schmick's for a cocktail and found the only other customers were three cops drinking coffee.
Our next two visits were bars, Knockback Nat's and Mr. Pitifuls, where there was plenty of hand sanitizer, but not many customers. This was the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day, when lots of people come out to drink lots of green beer and lots of Jameson. The bars and restaurants we passed were quiet. The silence was seemingly everywhere.
Health orders limiting capacity and hours and requiring space between customers hadn't been issued yet. In fact, as we were walking around Cincinnati's Central Business District, Gov. Mike DeWine was at a press conference in Columbus, talking about what might happen.
The next day, he ordered those empty bars closed. Restaurants could do take out and delivery only.
Over the last year, taverns and eateries - and their employees - have struggled. They've gotten creative with marketing and delivery and service. They've reduced hours, sometimes because of curfew, sometimes due to staff shortages, and sometimes because customers just weren't coming through the doors.
Today, many of the restrictions have been allowed to expire, but some places still haven't reopened. Some won't. Others limped along as long as they could, only to permanently close their doors. There are some still open, and they're waiting for the crowds to return.
And the crowds? Like me, they may be waiting for a shot in the arm so they can rub elbows with friends again.
Bill Rinehart is a WVXU reporter and afternoon host of All Things Considered.