Brian Chilson

White Water Tavern decided to close its doors on Saturday, March 14, five days before bars were required to close in Arkansas. The owners posted the following caption on their Instagram page. 

“Hey friends, we chose to shut the White Water down last Saturday; for now it remains quite unclear as to when we will be able to confidently open back up. A daunting proposition, but the health of our customers, friends, and the loved ones we work alongside is paramount to everything else. We urge everyone to take this situation seriously, to practice social distancing whenever possible, and to heed the dire warnings of our brothers and sisters around the planet. If you’re able to, please stay home until we have a better understanding about what’s coming at us. Soon we’ll be announcing a few fun measures to hopefully help keep some income coming in for our people and to make sure the lights stay on down here. To everyone out there helping others and working hard to make the best of this situation, we thank you. Much love and we hope to see you soon. Keep the faith!”

Time and time again, White Water’s been there for the arts and music community when it needed them the most. It’s hosted shows to raise money for sick or injured friends. It’s opened its doors for events for people to write postcards to elected officials. It held a watch party to celebrate when President Barack Obama was elected, and it was there for us to lean on when our current President Trump was elected.

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I had a conversation with Matt White, co-owner of the White Water, about the bar’s hiatus.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And the same day, Governor Hutchinson announced the first reported positive case in Arkansas. What was it like bartending after that?

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It was bizarre because everyone was sitting at the bar as a lot of big news kept popping up one after the other. The NBA suspending its season, Tom Hanks announcing his diagnosis, and so on. People were still kind of joking around, but things were getting a lot more serious very quickly.

What was the atmosphere at the show like? Was there a palpable tension? 

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By Thursday night I was feeling reluctant being open. We had a band in from Nevada and I remember looking around the bar during their show, trying to take it all in and remember how special the White Water and carefree social interaction are; clearly things were about to change, big time. By Friday evening, I was enormously stressed and worried about the entire situation. Nervous for my fellow co-workers who all needed to be making money, stressed over business bills that need to be paid, but extremely concerned about any of us or the show goers getting sick. By and large, people acted kind and conscientious, but I was relieved when it was over.

At what point did you decide to close down? 

All week I had been going back and forth with my friend Lee Bains, the touring musician scheduled to play on Saturday night. I was growing increasingly concerned for his health, out there being around different crowds every night. By Friday, we decided the best thing to do was for him to get home to Atlanta and cancel the rest of his tour. The thought of trying to promote a show and encouraging people to come hang out felt so wrong, so we shut down last Saturday and haven’t been open since. By Wednesday, all bars in the city were ordered to close.

Do you have any idea when White Water might open again? Do you have any other plans in the works you could talk about? 

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I have absolutely no idea when we will be able to safely open back up, but I suspect it will be longer than any projections I’ve heard thrown around lately. It feels like we are entering a period of time in which our lives and the world are going to be significantly changed. If me and our team are lucky enough to stay healthy, I hope that we can find ways to modify our business model to try to be of help and keep some income coming in for everyone.

To stay tuned about what you can do to help keep the White Water Tavern afloat, follow the bar’s operations on Facebook and on Instagram.