'The hardest thing I have ever had to do': Palmer's Bar owner Tony Zaccardi on the heartbreak of 2020

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Art outside of Minneapolis' Palmer's Bar.
Art outside of Palmer's Bar. (Mary Mathis for MPR)

"How are you?"

That's a loaded question in November 2020, particularly for someone who owns one a business in one of the categories most profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"People ask me a lot how I'm doing," said Palmer's Bar owner Tony Zaccardi in an Instagram live conversation today. "As a small business owner, bar owner, music venue owner...oof."

As Minnesota heads into another round of lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19, Zaccardi says he's been pointing out that "Palmer's survived the first pandemic in 1918, so we'll survive this one."

Last time I connected with Zaccardi, Palmer's was still boarded up in the wake of the unrest following George Floyd's killing. Since then, the bar was able to reopen for months at reduced capacity.

"We had some great days," said Zaccardi, but added that the health risks added a layer of stress. "We've been very strict about rules...cleanliness and distancing and masking."

Thanks to Palmer's large outdoor patio, Zaccardi was able to host some live music over the summer. When Turn Turn Turn were soundchecking, he remembers, "I started tearing up at soundcheck — just seeing a live band and hearing the subwoofer. I miss hosting music, and I miss what we were going to do this summer."

A musician himself, Zaccardi hasn't seen his Romantica bandmates since March. Another of his bands, Eleganza!, recorded an album in January with Matt Patton of Drive-By Truckers. "It's just sitting there. Nothing's being done with it. We mixed it, but what's the point of putting it out?"

Zaccardi said there have been many projects to benefit Palmer's, from a coloring book to an auction to gift certificate sales. "There's talk of a bake sale. I've got a little bit of merch for sale on the website." Small steps can only go so far, though; Zaccardi applauds the efforts of First Avenue owner Dayna Frank and the National Independent Venue Association to secure federal help for music venues.

"I had to lay off 12 people a few weeks ago," said Zaccardi, "and it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. It was heartbreaking...but they understood why and didn't make me feel like a terrible person for doing it. I'm thankful for that, because they're my family."

While it's "hurry up and wait" at Palmer's, the rest of the West Bank neighborhood has seen some change. "Acadia recently sold," Zaccardi noted. "The new owner is going to keep it going as a bar, which I'm happy about, and he's going to hopefully have a good live music situation eventually too."

Zaccardi described being between a rock and a hard place as the owner of a bar during a pandemic. "I would rather not have to be around 75 to 100 different people every single day, but I don't have a choice." He said it's frustrating when people group bars together without considering how some take more stringent precautions than others.

"We had to be open during all of this, because otherwise, we'd be out of business," he said. "Know that the people in the hospitality industry...we all take this as seriously as anybody else, but we just don't have a choice but to keep our businesses going. It's just as nerve-wracking for us, being here, as it is for customers."

Although live music was a relative rarity this summer, Zaccardi said it was magic when it happened.

"The 4onthefloor did a two-night stand," the Palmer's owner remembered. "There was a woman just singing along to herself, just jumping up and down, and it literally brought me to tears. I told Gabe Douglas, the singer for 4onthefloor, afterward, 'We did that.' He did that, obviously, but it was the two of us putting this event on that made everything seem better for just a moment. Watching this person just seeing a live band that she loved for the first time in a long, long time and just feelin' it. It was very heartwarming...that's what music does to all of us."

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