PHOENIX — Months before the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Arizona, MercBar quietly underwent a renovation -- brighter seating, new lighting, slightly darker paint -- to give the Biltmore-area bar a refreshed look, while keeping its timeless feel.
"Business doubled," said Rick Phillips, who helped bring the New York-inspired bar (the first MercBar opened on New York's Mercer Street in 1993) with his business partner, John McDonald, to Phoenix in 1995.
"We were on a great trajectory and momentum was building...and it was sort of like the air went out of the balloon because we knew that whenever we were going to restart, we'd be starting over. It would be almost as if it ever happened," Phillips said about making the decision to temporarily close the bar.
What Philips did not know then -- a question that many of us were likely asking ourselves and each other, and might still be asking -- was how long he (and other businesses) would be closed. He, like other businesses, closed in March 2020, and remained closed until now.
On Friday, April 23, MercBar will welcome customers for the first time in 13 months, albeit cautiously
"I just want to reopen with very little chaos, very low stress to the staff, while everybody still tries to feel out the situation," Philips told ABC15 during a recent interview for our "We're Open, Arizona" series.
"There are places that are requiring their staff to not wear masks. There are places that are. There is still a lot of, I don't want to say confusion or chaos, but there is certainly no one thing that everybody is adhering to," he said.
Reservations are required and can be made at mercbaraz.com. A business casual dress code will also be enforced, which means baseball caps, tank tops, flip flops, and sports attire are not allowed, according to the website.
The bar is located within the Esplanade complex near 24th Street and Camelback Road, across from Biltmore Fashion Park.
As COVID-19 vaccinations have increased and cases of COVID-19 have decreased in the state, restrictions have been lifted. Bars and nightclubs have opened again and restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, and water parks are allowed to be at full capacity, though some have decided to keep their safety protocols in place.
Compared to some of the trendy bars and clubs in Scottsdale or Tempe's Mill Avenue, Phillips said MercBar is more laid back and, joked, maybe, that it was already set up for social distancing with couches, chairs, and bench seating that isn't necessarily supposed to be moved.
Phillips is also the co-founder of the Arizona Taco Festival, which, like plenty of other events in the Valley, was canceled in 2020 due to the ongoing pandemic.
"Yes, there is a plan in place. There are dates that have been set, you know, for Taco Festival to return in late October," he said.
As for what the event will look like, Phillips said those are the challenges and questions that event producers are still trying to solve and answer, referring to a balance between keeping festival-goers safe and comfortable, while keeping the event fun and not degrading that experience.
"How can we rebuild this to be, you know, COVID safe or as much socially responsible as we can be, and have new fun elements?" he said. "I think that everybody's probably trying to figure stuff like that out."