NEWARK, NJ — At 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon in East Newark, the one thing that hasn’t changed is Maryann Downar’s keys turning the lock to open her family-owned dive bar, The Deep Inn.
Housed under a vintage neon sign flashing its name and a foamy pint, the windowless establishment has become a fan favorite and a sort of refuge since opening in 2018. Last year, NJ.com declared it one of the top 10 bars in the entire state, a merit Downar wears with pride.
“Anyone that works in the restaurants around here, Prudential and stuff, they come here to hide,” she said, motioning her hands out toward nothing and everything at once. “We had Jenga, we had dominos, people would come here to just relax and get away from the outside world.”
Cozy and dimly lit, The Deep Inn’s memorabilia- and taxidermy-lined walls look down on an untouched pool table and games patrons can no longer play. Downar, standing before a hot dog rotisserie, pauses midway through opening a bag of buns to address her husband, Joe Downar.
“I don’t even know if we should put hot dogs on, we have to close at seven tonight,” she said. Today is “Be Still Monday,” part of Newark's latest set of rules to curb the spread of the coronavirus as it rampages through the city.
The Ironbound, home to a slew of restaurants, bars and clubs, has been hit particularly hard with a test positivity rate above 30%. Additional restrictions on businesses in this section of the city have left many frustrated and unsure how they will manage, having just reopened over the summer.
A mandatory 9 p.m. curfew is imposed for the following zip codes: 07104, 07105, and 07107. Parties cannot exceed 10 people, making the lucrative holiday season another casualty of the pandemic.
Since turning that neon sign back on in September, The Deep Inn has retained only two of eight people on its payroll: Maryann and Joe Downar. Their son, Joseph, and his girlfriend help out sans paycheck — in COVID-19’s wake, the Downars are putting the “family” in “family-owned.”
Unlike many bars in the Ironbound, The Deep Inn does not serve food aside from the weenies, which were adopted out of necessity. There is nowhere to put outdoor seating on the narrow, uneven sidewalk outside, and with indoor service capped at 25% capacity, only 12 patrons can be in the bar at a time.
With a new 8 p.m. closing time (excepting the ever-so-still Monday), the forces working against Newark’s premier watering hole have culminated in a profit lower than the East Ward’s positivity rate. Maryann Downar said she’s lucky if she brings in 20% of what she was making before the pandemic.
“We’ve followed every rule to a T, with the masks and the sanitizing and the PPE and the logging people in,” she said. “We’ve done everything by the books, and because of some people who aren’t doing it, we’re taking the brunt of it.”
Much of The Deep Inn’s regular clientele consists of the Ironbound’s food service workers, who would head over around 11 p.m. after getting off their shifts. The full taps and empty glasses behind the bar tell a story that is unhappy but not uncommon in these trying times.
An October report from the New York State Comptroller predicts that up to half of New York City’s bars and restaurants may close permanently in six months to a year. Thousands still have closed already, though there is no official count. Neither New Jersey nor Newark has released any such estimates on the small business sector in the Garden State's most populous city.
As bad as the situation is for The Deep Inn, the reigning crown jewel of Jersey dive bars, it could always be worse. The Downars own the building and rent out the upstairs to tenants, which helps with the mortgage, and they’ve managed to procure some financial assistance. Maryann credits United Way of Greater Newark, which provided a $10,000 grant, for the insurance and other overhead payments she was able to make.
But the money The Deep Inn needs to survive is greater than the piecemeal funding it has garnered. Downar said she received just $1,000 from the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority’s first phase of its Small Business Lease Emergency Assistance program. She applied again for phases two and three, but has yet to hear back after eight weeks of waiting.
A $3,000 loan from the Payroll Protection Program has also done little to cover costs. Joseph Downar said that while the bar’s survival is teetering on the precipice, he’s less concerned about income than he is about protecting patrons. He frequently turns people away on Friday nights.
“It’s tragic what’s happening, not just in Newark or here in the Ironbound, but what’s going on in the world,” he said. “It’s much, much bigger than me and the bar.”
He added that the notion that restaurant and bar owners in the Ironbound are responsible for the uptick in cases is flawed. But his father, Joe Downar, said some owners have blatantly flouted safety guidelines with enclosed outdoor seating areas.
“Nobody’s abiding by the six-foot distancing rule, it’s like a Petri dish, these things. It’s warm in there, they’ve got people on top of each other, they’ve got the heaters going,” he said. “All four sides are plastic. It might as well be inside.”
Asked whether The Deep Inn will be forced to close, Maryann Downar is adamant that the option is not on the table. After all, it just came back to life a mere two years ago after being closed for a decade due to financial reasons.
“Ever since that article was written about us last year, we’ve been getting people who just stop in to see us,” she said. “We can’t lose it, this is like a statue down here. Everybody knows of The Deep Inn. We’re down, but we’re not out yet. It’s this pandemic, it took away everything.”