COVID-19 LGBTQ business update: Kobalt

By Jeff Kronenfeld

In this new online column, we catch up with local LGBTQ business owners to see how COVID-19 is affecting them, employees, and customers. If there’s a business serving the Valley’s LGBTQ community you want an update on, let us know at COVID19tipsEcho@gmail.com. (*Editor’s note: While we are placing these stories as soon as we receive them, keep in mind that during COVID-19, things can change rapidly.)

Jeff Perales, the co-owner of Kobalt, wasn’t surprised when the Governor issued orders to shut bars on March 17. However, he had no idea the shutdown would drag on for so long, to say nothing of it ending and beginning again in pell-mell fashion. He has taken the downtime to clean, renovate and even reimagine how Kobalt can safely serve patrons whenever it is safe to open again. While Perales said Kobalt has been relatively lucky so far, the government’s waffling response leaves him anything but reassuring for the future.

With the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Arizona having climbed to 3,408 — more than double when the last installment of this column was published on June 29 — it’s not hard to see why Perales feels that way. Despite these numbers, ASU races toward reopening in-person classes even while the Governor has extended the lockdown order for most bars, indoor gyms, movie theaters and water parks, with the policy to be reviewed at two-week intervals going forward.

Initially, following the first order to shut, Perales expected to be closed for a month or two. He reckoned about half of his employees had full-time jobs, with the bar being a source of supplemental income. The others mostly worked part-time at the bar and part-time at other jobs. Many of these workers eventually found new work in other sectors as the shutdown continued with no end in sight. Only one of Kobalt’s employees — a bartender — filed for unemployment, according to Perales.

“That kind of was a huge weight off, knowing that they took the initiative to seek other employment or find other ways to pay their bills,” Perales said. “That immediately took a lot of stress off of me where I didn’t have to feel like I had to hurry.”

Kobalt is currently closed as per a July 23 order from the Governor, though it had opened in a limited fashion for a few special events earlier in the month. This reopening allowed Perales to test out how his physical and policy changes worked in practice. Since his landlord needed to resurface the building’s parking lot anyway, the order to shut again came at as convenient a time as it could.

Perales is concerned for the future but also looking to take advantage of whatever small opportunities he can to keep Kobalt alive despite the tectonic shifts caused by COVID-19. He worries other local watering holes that survive off higher volumes may have a harder time adjusting. He points to the fact Kobalt’s business model is already geared toward smaller crowds as one plus for them.

Perales is part of the group text for LGBTQ+ bar owners established by Stacy Louis, which was discussed in this column’s prior installment. He supported efforts for these bars to coordinate their reopening, which growing COVID-19 case numbers and the Governor’s subsequent orders derailed. Perales took a measured and staged response to his own brief reopening, opting to host a few private events. This made it easier to limit the number of patrons and support the bar’s new social distancing practices. He hosted three events, including a fundraiser for the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and a karaoke night streamed online.

Before COVID-19, a centerpiece of Kobalt’s business was its five weekly karaoke nights. Unfortunately, the same passionate belting of pop tunes enjoyed by so many is particularly prone to dispersing droplets, which can spread coronaviruses. Perales installed a stage while initially shut down and ended up adding on a plexiglass shield to make sure sounds —and not spit — fill the bar’s compact space. He also installed a large rolling door opening onto the patio, increasing circulation and allowing for the safe placement of tables.

During the karaoke event, all singers wore masks as an additional precaution. Further, the mics were sanitized between each performance and requests to sing were texted in to further minimize risk. Perhaps saddest of all, a strict not duets policy was also enforced. However difficult these adjustments may be, Perales has received almost nothing but encouragement and cooperation from patrons in-person and online.   

“The support has been pretty overwhelming,” Perales said. “since we are all in the same boat and dealing with this crisis in our own different way, people for the most part, at least in our community, have been great when it comes to how we’re dealing with it and looking forward to us coming back, but at the same time knowing that we want to do it as safely as possible.”