How a ‘secret bar’ is surviving the pandemic — and trying to be a good neighbor

IDC in Grand Rapids | Allison Donahue

When bars and restaurants were forced to close in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many owners had to change their business models by offering curbside service, specials or delivery to survive the economic hit.

However, for one Grands Rapids speakeasy-style bar, being the city’s “best kept secret” is still part of the plan, although people are going out less than ever to get a drink. 

On the second floor of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, an unassuming door, with a keypad on the left and hand sanitizer on the right, welcomes people back to IDC, a ‘70s-themed secret bar located in the heart of the city. 

The name of the bar, IDC, stands for “I Don’t Care,” a tongue-in-cheek response to the age-old question, “Where do you want to go tonight?” 

IDC in Grand Rapids | Allison Donahue

It opened in September and only allowed about 100 people in the bar and on the balcony at once even prior to the pandemic. 

Now under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s latest executive order closing indoor bar service after a spike in cases, the inside seating is closed off from the public and people are only able to sit on the balcony, making the small venue even smaller. 

IDC, like a number of restaurants and bars across the state, has signed on to the “Michigan Restaurant Promise” to uphold the governor’s rules in order to decrease the spread of COVID-19 so that businesses can reopen to full capacity as soon as possible. 

Each month, IDC sends out an access code to everyone who signs up to the mailing list, which unlocks the door and invites you into an all white, mirrored room with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, blaring music from the 70’s and opens up to a large mural of disco queen Donna Summer.

“Watching somebody’s first time in here is my favorite, because you type in the code and then the door lights up and that’s the first ‘What is this?’ moment,” said IDC General Manager Taylor Hoener.

IDC in Grand Rapids | Allison Donahue

“Then you walk through and you see the glass mirror in front of you and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is a really small, cute bar.’ You can hear the music, and then the sliding door opens, and you see Donna there, and then you hear how loud the music is, and then you see the lights and their jaws just drop. And it never gets old.”

The entrance is largely the same in that a code is required to enter, but now a person outside the door will punch the code in for you to limit the amount of people touching the keypad and everyone is reminded of the safety regulations put in place.

“It’s exclusive, but inclusive because anybody can sign up and anybody can join us for a beverage,” Hoener said. “But with the pandemic going on, we’ve had to change a lot and try to work what’s going on to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

IDC is one of about 150 restaurants and bars, many of which are in West Michigan, to have signed on to an agreement to implement stronger coronavirus safety regulations. There have been outbreaks traced back to some establishments, most notably, 179 cases tied to Harper’s in East Lansing.

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The agreement includes:

  • Each staff member will receive a daily wellness check, including having their temperature taken
  • Staff members that interact with guests and/or work closely together will always wear clean masks 
  • Tables are spaced out to allow proper social distancing
  • CDC requirements are met for cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces
  • When there is an identified positive COVID test on the staff, the business will meet or exceed all requirements prior to reopening
  • Groups will be limited to no more than 10
  • Staff members are asked to remain safe outside of work and follow all of the same protocols required while on the job

As part of the promise, the restaurants and bars also ask that their customers contribute to a safer reopening of the state’s social scene. 

Customers are asked to stay home if they are sick or have recently come into contact with someone who is sick, wear a face mask when until seated, maintain proper social distancing, refrain from moving or combining tables, order takeout if they are unwilling to wear a mask and refrain from questioning staff members about their enforcement of public health mandates.

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Grand Rapids saw a significant rise of new cases in mid-June and now is in the ‘high-risk’ category for COVID-19 control. 

Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, has 6,050 cases and 149 deaths, as of Saturday — the fourth-most cases and deaths of Michigan’s 83 counties. Only Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in Southeast Michigan have more cases and deaths.

The state also reports 598 “probable” cases of COVID-19 and three probable deaths in Kent County. Combining the county’s confirmed positive cases with probable cases brings the total up to 6,648 cases and 152 deaths.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss is supportive of the business’ efforts.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on West Michigan and many businesses – particularly bars and restaurants – have suffered,” she said. “It’s great to see this group rally together to protect the health and safety of their employees, customers and our community.”

COVID-19 case spike closes indoor bar service in most of Mich.

Whitmer told the Advance in a July 14  interview that her team is “watching very closely the Grand Rapids region.”

She said the federal COVID-19 Response Assistance Field Team (CRAFT) will be coming to the Grand Rapids region to try to slow the spread of the virus in the state’s second largest city. 

“They have Grand Rapids on their radar as a place that they want to come in for a few days and study and understand what’s happening and try to be of assistance,” Whitmer said. “It’s not just on my radar, obviously; it’s on the national radar, too.”

If the Grand Rapids area, which is currently in phase 4 of the governor’s reopening plan, falls back into phase 3, restaurants and bars will have to close their doors to the public again. 

That’s what the businesses that signed on to the Michigan Restaurant Promise are trying to avoid. 

IDC in Grand Rapids | Allison Donahue

“We’re disheartened to see some establishments where mandates are not being adhered to and enforced. It threatens to undo the many sacrifices the community and our industry have made since March 2020, and undermines the hard work of establishments who have implemented policies to keep the public safe,” The Michigan Restaurant Promise states on their website. “Though our entire industry is fighting for survival, our greatest concern is for the safety of our team members and guests. … The future of our industry depends on it.”

That’s in contrast to a number of business groups, led by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that have pushed back against the governor’s strict executive orders.

Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley has taken to Twitter multiple times to denounce the governor’s latest mask mandate and says it “places employees in danger and employers at risk” of violent confrontations by those who refuse to wear masks. 

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce also shared a release detailing the Unlock Michigan petition, which is aimed at repealing the 1945 law granting the governor executive powers during an emergency. The petition was created after Whitmer used the law several times to close businesses and schools to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Whitmer reveals why she tightened Michigan’s mask mandate

Whitmer told the Advance that she is disappointed in some business groups’ resistance to her mandates.

“You would think that they would embrace the need to ensure that we’re masking up so that the numbers don’t go so high that we’ve got to close things down again,” she said.

Meanwhile, Grand Rapids has held onto its nightlife and social scene by closing down streets to set up outdoor dining and utilizing balconies and patios, but Hoener says its still not the same as it used to be.

“Picture a dance party. You have people standing on the balcony, mingling, talking with each other, dancing. It was such a fun uplifting atmosphere and it was like throwing a party every night. It was something to look forward to every evening and I genuinely love my job because of that,” Hoener said. “And with COVID now, I have to take somebody to a table, and they have to stay there for the evening. …  I’m missing people being able to socialize with each other and dance.”