UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — Just before 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dee Taira eyed the jugs of hand sanitizer she’d placed around Rainbo Club. She took another look at the plastic partitions she attached to a row of red leather booths.
These were among the measures Taira had taken in recent months to ensure her shoebox-sized dive bar with no windows could reopen safely. She added tables to what had previously been an open floor. She spaced out bar stools.
After being closed for 14 months, Taira wondered: What would Rainbo look like in a post-pandemic world?
“We need to open because our employees need money, and we need money. On the other hand, I want to make sure we’re safe,” she said. “I have mixed feelings. I’m not sure. Will people remember to come back? We’re just gonna open the doors and see what happens.”
All things considered, Taira is feeling optimistic about reopening the storied Rainbo Club, 1150 N. Damen Ave.
All eight staffers returning to work this week are fully vaccinated. She thanked neighbors and supporters who contributed to a GoFundMe, which benefitted 13 furloughed staffers.
At this point, Taira said, the best way to support Rainbo Club is to come by and have a drink.
“And tip your bartenders!” Taira said. “We made it. We’re open. Things are looking good.”
‘There Was No End In Sight’
Rainbo Club has been a bar in some capacity since 1933. A librarian, Taira took over the bar in October 1985 with her partner at the time, a bartender. After her partner died in 1986, Taira continued running the bar.
She lived across the street in a three-bedroom apartment with a handful of roommates, bartenders who were aspiring musicians. They paid $250 a month in the ’80s.
Eventually, Taira bought the building and moved upstairs. As the neighborhood changed, so did Rainbo Club’s clientele — and staffers.
The aspiring musicians and artists who once bartended and drank as regulars were priced out of the area and moved to neighborhoods like Logan Square and Avondale.
While current neighbors are supportive of the bar, sales aren’t what they used to be, said Jim Garbe, who’s managed Rainbo Club for 25 years. Still, business was going strong before the pandemic.
Because Taira owns the building, she said she was able to avoid many of the overhead costs hammering bar owners who rented. And it helped that her tenant at 2001 W. Division St., vintage shop Velvet Goldmine, consistently had high sales during the pandemic.
But the 14-month shutdown still brought challenges.
“Getting shut down with no notice, we had no time to prepare,” she said. “I understand it was an emergency situation … . But for people like us, that have no other resources, it was tough.”
As usual, Taira said, she was hit hard with a high property tax bill. It also didn’t make sense for Taira to apply for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, a life-saving measure for many small businesses.
The loan stipulated that a majority of funds had to be directed toward payroll, but because Rainbo Club has a tavern license and cannot sell food, it was never possible to bring staff back in any capacity, Taira said.
“We weren’t sure if we could even pay that loan off,” she said. “There was no end in sight.”
In an effort to increase revenue for businesses, the city announced COVID-19 capacity limits will not apply to patrons who are fully vaccinated. But Taira questioned how she could logistically prove who’s vaccinated and who’s not.
Her own vaccination card that she received from Rush Hospital did not initially have her name on it, she said.
“We’re just gonna mask,” she said. “We’d have to have two to three more doormen. We’ve always been open to everyone. I don’t want to have to segregate people because of their beliefs.”
Taira applied for an outdoor patio permit last summer, hoping to use a vacant lot next to the bar for outdoor seating. But the city didn’t approve the application until October, when temperatures dropped. Similar delays befell neighborhood bars Bourbon on Division and Innertown Pub.
To have the outdoor beer garden for this summer, Taira had to re-apply for the permit in February. She’s still waiting to hear back.
One piece of Rainbo is open for sure — the bar’s beloved photo booth.
“We’re just winging it,” Taira said. “We’ll see what happens.”
By 8 p.m. Wednesday, the bar reached its capacity of 50. Groups of friends gathered around tables. Some couples on dates sat at the bar stools. The hum of the music was barely discernible over the noise of people doing what they had waited 14 months to do — talk over a round of beer.
Rainbo Club’s hours are 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday-Friday and 4 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday. Rainbo will be closed Mondays and Tuesdays and will reopen with normal hours Wednesday.
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