“The first industry I thought of when the pandemic hit was the hospitality industry,” explained Johnny Sweet, director of the wonderful documentary, Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars. He had worked as a bartender while attending Syracuse University and knew how close-knit the workers get. Sweet also knew how devastating the loss would be to these establishments - for everyone from the employees to the owners and the regulars who go each week.
The documentary begins in mid-March 2020 when Queens had become the worst infected district of New York City, which had the honor of being the world’s most infected city at the time. Sweet was introduced to Jena Ellenwood, through a mutual friend. She is a bartender at The Sparrow Tavern, a local watering hole in Astoria, Queens. The film uses that tavern as its centerpiece with interviews of current and former employees.
Those of us living in the NYC metro area are well aware of the feeling of dread and fear that hit as soon as the pandemic began raging in the city. The period when people began having elderly relatives die, friends began getting sick, and ambulances raced through city blocks seemingly all day long. Sweet does a good job of documenting this period - especially for those outside of the area who may never have realized just how bad the situation really was.
Interviews for the film were conducted during the peak of the pandemic in Queens. To ensure the safety of both the subjects and camera crew, the interviews were filmed in an empty studio with cameras operated remotely. Sweet says he never even considered doing interviews via ZOOM because he wanted to maintain as high level of cinematic production value as possible, while keeping everyone safe.
“What’s going to happen to all of the restaurants that had to lay everybody off?” wonders Ellenwood early in the film. “Are we going to be able to come back? Are we just going to walk by that spot on the corner and feel like there’s a hole in our neighborhood? It’s a place that brought so many of us together. I grew up in that fuckin’ bar… How many of us had our lives changed because we walked into that dark room?”
Sweet does an excellent job of portraying Queens as a being a local neighborhood. He puts faces on the people suddenly unemployed, showing that they are more than merely statistics. More than anything, the film shows how closing down bars and restaurants was every bit as important towards slowing down the pandemic as anything.
“Medical and hospitality were basically two communities that needed each other to help bend the curve,” explained Sweet. “And both communities knew that about each other, but I don’t think the public knew about the symbiotic relationship.”
“Restaurants and bars volunteered to sacrifice their financial incomes for the betterment of their communities,” continued Sweet. “The fact is that most American who were able to work continued to work behind their laptops, Wi-fi service, and not skip a beat professionally. Most do not understand that there are people out there who have built entire livelihoods on face to face, person to person contact. I don’t think they realize that these jobs can’t be done behind a screen. You can’t serve a beer behind a ZOOM channel.”
Bars are more than places where people gather for a drink. It’s where lifelong friendships are created, relationships developed, and part of our identities.
Jon Michaud, a writer for The New Yorker, says in the film, “There’s this concept of the third place, which is neither work nor home and the bar is an example of a third place. One of the things that takes place in a true third place is a leveling of status as everyone gets treated the same. I think that one of the facets of a true New York city neighborhood bar is this kind of leveling.”
Jena and her friends learn to adapt and cope with the reality of life during COVID, finding new sources of income and seizing the opportunity to pursue creative endeavors that might normally be sidelined. Throughout the process of finding a foothold in this “new normal”, the anxiety and uncertainty of New York’s hospitality industry looms, as 2020 ends with COVID hospitalizations in New York continuing to rise once again.
Sweet and his crew filmed Last Call during a period of time in which nobody knew the full extent of just how dangerous COVID-19 might be. He worried about keeping his wife and himself safe, but he knew documenting this period was important.
“I had to have a difficult conversation with my wife,” recalled Sweet. “All of our projects got cancelled. We had just come off the Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story (which won an Emmy for Best Long Sports Documentary) for Showtime and were in line for a decent amount of work and then all that went away. I told her I have to take a risk here and try to make something that’s local and current that means something.”
The most difficult part of making this film was having people involved lose family members during the making of it. Sweet thinks the film provided a catharsis for them to push through while they were dissecting the losses they had just incurred. But it was also a story they all believed was worth telling.
“It’s important that people hear and see what my industry, my city, and my neighborhood is going through,” said Ellenwood in the film’s media kit. “It has been hard enough to explain to friends and relatives who don’t live in areas that are hugely affected, what it feels like to hear nothing but sirens and to feel helpless when your coworkers, regulars, and friend’s relatives pass away and you can only mourn virtually. It’s equally as hard to explain what it feels like to see your entire industry decimated. Hospitality, the arts, live events—these fields are so often not viewed as ‘professions’ and we very much are. Hopefully by sharing our stories, we can start to bring these issues to the forefront and be heard before more places we love are gone for good.”
Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars will be screened at the New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, October 3rd at 7:00pm. A Moment on Main Street, a short film which shows how covid-19 affected businesses in Belmar, NJ will also be screened that night. Both films can be seen in the beautiful movie theater at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus or can be purchased to screen at home. Click here for ticket information.