The Owl's Club on Summerlee Road has been in business – in one form or another – for almost 100 years in Fayette County. It survived The Great Depression, Black Monday, multiple recessions and the years when local mines weren't running coal.

The pandemic, however, did what no economic downturn had ever been able to do: It kept regular customers – some of whom have been patronizing the local establishment for 50 years, according to 44-year-old owner Candy Gilkey – out of the bar.

In mid-March, on barely a moment's notice, Gov. Jim Justice joined dozens of other governors in ordering bars and restaurants to offer take-out or delivery only, in an effort to slow the spread of the fatal virus. Now, restaurant workers are returning to work as part of Justice's phased-in plan to re-open the state's economy.

Bars have still not received permission to reopen.

Food and beverage workers have been among those most hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Homebase, a free scheduling and time tracking tool for small businesses, the total number of hours worked at establishments in the food and drink sector around the nation had dropped 40 percent by March 17 — the day that Justice and other governors issued their orders.

Overall, hourly workers in the U.S. had already declined by 45 percent on March 17, taking a toll on the country's hospitality workers, many of whom were barely making enough to cover their month-to-month bills.

"The food and beverage industry is not even paycheck to paycheck," Kathryn Lott, the executive director of The Southern Smoke Foundation, told Rolling Stone magazine. "It's shift to shift."

Lott's nonprofit organization supports those in need within the food and beverage industry. It is one of multiple agencies and businesses which are providing relief funds to help out-of-work bar, restaurant, delivery and service workers as they struggle to make ends meet during the COVID-19 shutdown with no pay or severe cuts in pay.

Gilkey said Friday that she applied for and received unemployment to help support her family while the government forced the bar closed. She also received a federal emergency loan that has kept the bar afloat.

She declined to say the amount of the loan.

"We didn't get much," she reported.

She added that bars typically get $3,000 to $5,000.

But running a small business – and a bar at that – is not always about the money.

The hardest part of the coronavirus outbreak for Gilkey, she said, has been thinking about her regulars. She goes into the empty bar to make repairs and updates — and she thinks about them.

One Owl Club regular is a retired Collins Middle School coach who, more than 30 years ago, was Gilkey's health teacher.

"I don't really call them customers," Gilkey explained. "I call them my friends.

"They really make the place. That's who makes the club. It's the people."

She spends much of her time at her home with her 8-year-old daughter, trying to stay busy.

"I've been praying a lot," said Gilkey. "I'm seeing a lot of things on Facebook, reading up on everybody else's lives, how they're doing.

"I'm hanging out with my daughter, playing games, just trying to keep myself busy." 

Like all small-town places that have outlasted generations of local residents, The Owl's Club is an institution. It has its niche in local lore. It was a skating rink in 1933 and first opened as a bar, called The Tip Top Tavern, in the 1940s, she said.

By the late 1950s, the establishment had become The Owl's Club — the kind of neighborhood bar that draws the same loyal patrons, day after day, year after year.

Along with her well-known twin brother, local musician Randy Gilkey, Candy grew up in the Oak Hill area and graduated from the local high school.

She bought The Owl's Club from her boyfriend, longtime bartender and owner Mark Matulis, in 2015. The couple operate the bar together and employ one full-time bartender.

The trio know what to expect at The Owl's Club, starting at around 3:30 p.m. when the Happy Hour regulars begin to trickle in.

"They'll just all sit around, just talk about their day," said Gilkey. "A lot of them will do trivia questions.

"You know. It's like family. We'll just sit around and talk about what's going on in the world that day."

The afternoon crowd stays until around 7 p.m., and then the "nighttime" regulars arrive.

"They'll shoot pool, do things like play jukebox," Gilkey said. "On the weekends, we get different groups of people — younger people."

The Owl's Club is a social anchor for Gilkey and the regulars. When one regular customer died in 2017, his family mentioned The Owl's Club in his obituary.

"Every once in a while, you get something new, but not often," she explained. "It's usually the same group — (from) Oak Hill, Fayetteville, mainly."

Since March 18, the day after the governor's directive, the club has sat quiet and empty, but Gilkey said she has not let go of any of her employees, thanks to the SBA loan.

Bartender Chris Lambey, 38, applied for unemployment on March 29 but had not received it by Friday.

He is not alone. Since early March, over 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment, setting a record for the biggest spike of joblessness in the nation's history.

In response, states have paid a record $48 billion in unemployment benefits to people out of work. According to an analysis by One Fair Wage, a nonprofit that advocates for restaurant workers, 56 percent of those who have applied for unemployment insurance are getting benefits. Meanwhile, 44 percent are still waiting.

In April, Lambey said he loves his job at The Owl's Club, where he has worked for around four years. 

The hardest part of being out of work for a month has not been the loss of money, said Lambey.

"I hate it because it's hurting me, not getting around my friends," he said. "Financially, I've set back money, of course.

"I'm not saying I'm a genius, but I know how to do that stuff, just in case of times like this. 

"But it's terrible. I'm not a homebody," explained Lambey. "I just enjoy hanging out with (patrons).

"It's my favorite job because I get to hang out with my best friends. They're considered family to me."

He said he enjoys having a cold beer waiting on a regular or mixing their favorite drink, before they ask. He also considers The Owl's Club job "the best job" he had ever had, and the owners are his friends. 

Lambey said he has spent his days since March 18 at home, "just sitting around," as he waits for word that the bar will re-open.

"I'm just riding it out, like everybody else is," he said. "I tell you what, it's driving me crazy. I'm ready to go, right now."

Gilkey said she believes that the pandemic — the first one in The Owl Club's history — will change bar operations.

"I don't think it's ever going to be the same again," she said. "I do believe that.

"I think we're going to have to take different regimens. We're going to have to, maybe, not have as many people," she predicted. "I don't think everything will get back to normal.

"This will be our new normal."

She expects the changes could last a couple of years.

"We'll have to be more careful with everything," said Gilkey. "If they do decide to let us open up soon, we can't just go full force back all at once." 

Gilkey said the bar has been cleaned and that the alcohol has been preserved. She and the staff are just waiting to get the go-ahead to open the doors and let in the customers.

"We will be ready," she said.

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