He paces because he’s bored, up and down the same aisle that used to be so loud you couldn’t hear the person next to you.
On this mid-February Thursday night, he might serve 10 tables of maskless customers. That’s roughly half his pre-pandemic load. He works 50 hours a week between the dining room and the bar, about the same as before, but his tips are half of what they used to be.
He slips three blue ballpoint pens into his man-bun. In his boredom, he forgets they’re there. He’ll leave at 8 p.m. because there’s no reason to stay — no need to watch the same SportsCenter highlights for what, the seventh time now? Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it all feels the same.
His customers all know him, and he knows them. He gives them fist bumps on their way out and jokes with them at their tables. Ask him how he’s doing, even on the slowest of pandemic nights, and his answer is the same.
“I’m doing awesome,” he says, greeting table after table.
They call him Big Z. His real name is Zac Smith. He is 43 years old, and he’s worked as a bartender and server at Nick’s English Hut for over 10 years. His graying hair and the stains on his sweatshirt are the only indications of how long he’s been working. You wouldn’t be able to tell his age from the passion he brings — even on the dullest nights.
“Welcome! How you folks doing?” his voice booms from the back of the dining room as new customers arrive through the front door. He owns the loudest voice in the room.
Outwardly, Big Z is all high energy, charisma and joy. That’s not fake. He loves his job.
But hidden behind the smile? He’s afraid. And he’s tired of being afraid.
After a night of working the bar with hundreds of drunk, maskless students coming and going, the first thing Big Z does at 2:30 a.m. when he gets home is strip off all his clothes and get straight in the shower. It’s the only way he can feel safe going to bed.
As much as he misses a crowded bar or dining room before the pandemic, the customers are what scares him the most. Restaurant staff, especially at bars, are constantly thrusting themselves into one of the most at-risk environments for COVID-19 spread.
New COVID-19 cases are declining at IU and in Indiana. On March 3, IU reported a record-low mitigation testing positivity rate of 0.12% on the Bloomington campus. IU estimated roughly 0.1% of the IU community in Bloomington was infected with COVID-19 as of March 3, according to the COVID-19 dashboard update.
Even with new cases declining, working in indoor dining still comes with high risk.
During his shifts, Big Z said he washes his hands 10-15 times. Every time he touches someone’s glass, he has to wash his hands based on Nick’s policy. He feels Nick’s has taken many steps to be as safe as possible.
His hands are raw from washing, his pockets are emptier than he’s accustomed to and he’s afraid. He doesn’t have a choice but to work. He’s only making half his normal income. He wouldn’t be able to afford not working at all.
Over the course of the pandemic, a small handful of employees have tested positive, Nick’s General Manager Pete Mikolaitis said. Big Z has never tested positive. When employees tested positive, Mikolaitis said the whole building had to be shut down for three-to-four days for deep cleaning.
“I feel relatively safe,” Big Z said. “It's the unknown that makes me feel a little scared.”
If it’s being done right, Big Z said, there should be an IU game on all the TVs, the taps should be flowing and the parties should last into the early morning hours, win or lose.
There should be beer spilled all over the floor, leaving the soles of your shoes sticky. Big Z should be talking to the customers sitting at his bar or the tables he’s waiting. He’s a bartender, but he sees himself as an entertainer.
Over the last 25 years, Big Z has worked at nearly all of Bloomington’s biggest bars. He worked at the original Yogi’s location. He even worked at Nick’s once before his current job. He moved to Upland Brewing Company, then switched back to Nick’s.
Big Z doesn’t interact with customers like he’s used to. Bar top seating is not allowed in Monroe County per its own COVID-19 policy.
He works in relative silence behind the bar, taking tickets from servers and making drinks for people he’ll never speak to but who could still potentially infect him.
He misses the stressful, hectic shifts and flaring tempers. He misses hearing “Fuck off!” yelled at him as he made yet another trip back into the kitchen.
During an interview with the Indiana Daily Student, Big Z described bartending and serving during the pandemic as boring and dull over 20 times.
“But I don’t want the word boring or dull to undercut the fact that it’s very fucking serious,” he said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its first anniversary, Big Z is tired of losing all the things he loves to do.
With the money he saves up during a normal year, Big Z travels in the summer when business is down at Nick’s. He follows the band Phish around the country and said he’s seen them over 300 times.
But he won’t be able to this summer, regardless of COVID-19. He hasn’t made enough money. Instead of having six profitable shifts a week before COVID-19, he now only has around two.
About 25% of his income at Nick’s before the pandemic came from days when IU had a game, Big Z said. When he wasn’t working, he’d go out to be with his bartender friends at their own bars. Big Z said he and the other bartenders virtually trade their money around.
Big Z doesn’t go out to other bars anymore because he doesn’t think it’s safe. When he’s not working, he’s home. He virtually only leaves for the grocery store and work.
“If you know me at all, you know that’s not anywhere close to my life,” Big Z said. “If I didn't have any work, man, it would have been really long, a really, really long year.”
The typical Nick’s business cycle relies on students coming to the Hoosier Room and fans coming to watch IU games. Little 500 and graduation weekends are Nick’s other two major money-making events during the year, providing enough money for Nick’s to survive through winter and summer break.
But in the COVID-19 pandemic, Mikolaitis said nearly all of that business has been lost.
Over 200 customers were allowed in the Hoosier Room at once before the pandemic. Now, Nick’s allows 100. Not every table can be used because of social distancing policies. Even then, not all of the open tables are being filled because people are not coming.
Bloomington bars thrive off of college students, but maskless customers also put the employees at high risk. Mikolaitis said he felt a responsibility to keep patrons safe when the restaurant closed at the start of the pandemic, when his landlord forgave Nick’s rent.
Mikolaitis said money wasn’t the reason Nick’s reopened in May, but he also felt a responsibility to give his employees a chance to make money, or else lose them to other jobs.
On Feb. 24, Monroe County entered blue status for COVID-19 spread, the lowest rating from the state. As a result, bars are allowed to stay open until 2 a.m. as of March 4, one hour later than before. Though that means an extra hour of potential risk for employees.
Football games helped bring some customers to dine-in, especially due to the IU team’s success this year. Mikolaitis said September and October were Nick’s best months during the pandemic as a result. But once students began to leave town for Thanksgiving, business dropped significantly.
“We're a little bit luckier than say some other bars, we're not 100% student driven,” Mikolaitis said. “But it hurts, the students do make a big difference, mainly late night.”
In line with many infectious disease experts, Cole Beeler, IU’s director of symptomatic testing, noted indoor dining as an easier place to become infected because it is impossible to wear a mask and eat at the same time. Monroe County Health Administrator Penny Caudill said alcohol may make patrons less careful to remember their masks when they leave their tables.
Nick’s has largely followed regulations set by the Health Department, as well as its own additional guidelines. Employees consistently wear masks, tables are closed to allow for social distancing and surfaces are frequently cleaned. Caudill said she could not recall any major complaints filed to the Health Department regarding COVID-19 safety at Nick’s.
Beeler said the risk of disease transmission comes down to three main factors: time, distance and density. Beeler said the more time, the less distance and the more people are in a space, the more likely you are to be infected.
Beeler said it is hard to say for sure whether a person was infected at a bar or restaurant, but it is clear those locations pose a significant risk. For that reason, he said bartenders and servers like Big Z are at an above average risk of exposure. Employees’ constant use of masks protects them from customers, to an extent, Beeler said.
Mikolaitis is not requiring his employees to be vaccinated, but he recommends it. Big Z is desperately waiting for his turn.
For Big Z, the prospect of the COVID-19 vaccine brings a sense of relief, and he said he’s planning to get it as soon as he can. In Indiana, the current age eligibility for the vaccine is 50.
Mikolaitis said Nick’s has good ventilation systems, but Beeler said no indoor space is perfectly ventilated. The Hoosier Room at Nick’s is a large open room with dozens of customers not wearing masks while they drink — a factor in why Beeler said bars are a “worst-case scenario” for transmission.
As the heavy early February snow melts away into a glimpse of warm spring air, Nick’s outdoor tables have started to return. A small group of students played Sink the Biz in shorts that Thursday night. Couples walk their dogs on both sides of Kirkwood Avenue, and groups of students come back outside as the cold weather moves out.
It’s still a slow dinner shift, but even as he longs for a crowded dining room, Big Z smiles beneath his navy mask with red circles. He smiles because he loves to talk, to meet people, to reunite with customers of old.
But he’s ready to take the mask off, to be in the Hoosier Room with customers at his bar. To not worry about where they’ve been and what they might be bringing to him.
Big Z’s favorite drink is tequila. It’s his favorite to pour, too. He’s ready to down shots with customers again, or have a true celebration for a customer's birthday. All he could do on that Thursday dinner shift was yell “Happy Birthday!” on the woman’s way out the door.
Because of pandemic restrictions, Big Z doesn’t have quite the same spark that’s endeared him to his customers.
He’s ready to entertain again. He’s ready to make the money he’s used to again.
And he’s tired of being afraid.