Last updated 12/22/2020 at 10:53am
On Dec. 18, 1917, Congress proposed the 18th Amendment, which would later make it illegal to make, buy, sell or drink alcohol. Two years later, after ratification Jan. 16, 1919, prohibition became the law of the land.
For nearly 14 years, Americans who wanted to have an adult beverage were forced underground. They danced, dined, drank and gambled in what became known as a “speakeasy.” Law enforcement and other public employees often knew about their clandestine watering hole and even joined the local folk exercising their constitutional rights to peaceably assemble and pursue happiness.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s occurring in towns and cities across Eastern Washington today.
In response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandates shuttering gyms, theaters and bowling alleys and prohibiting inside service at restaurants and bars, “speakeasies” are popping up, with a coronavirus twist.
Inside, life feels nearly normal. There are few masks, if any. Social distancing is checked at the door. Often, you can belly up to the bar. And you can definitely grab a table, order dinner and be served by a waitress.
In some places, you can lift weights and work out. Yes, in today’s coronavirus-dominated world, even a gym has become a speakeasy, as have churches in which parishioners met clandestinely to avoid the watchful eyes of governors trying to limit attendance in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
What isn’t normal is the secrecy surrounding open business.
A year ago, owners clamored to have people talk about their business. Today, not so much.
Many proprietors are operating on the down low to avoid attracting the attention of over-zealous public servants who claim they are “just doing their job.” They are quietly serving dinner, selling drinks and allowing patrons to work out so they can pay their bills.
Much like speakeasies of the 1920s, today’s businesses are facing a myriad of threats from state agencies. Those threats include fines, license revocation and even criminal charges. By flying under the radar, business owners today just hope to generate enough revenue to survive until virus-related mandates are rescinded or thrown out by a court.
“We are no longer trying to make money. We’re just trying to survive,” Barley’s Brewhub owner Tom Floyd said last week. Floyd has opened his Kennewick tavern in defiance of the governor’s orders. Several other business owners have opened, too, around Eastern Washington.
Floyd is among business owners hit in the state’s “whack-a-mole” attack on business owners opening their doors.
Other business owners around the region have taken note of the assault on his business and others. While longing to join them, the risk may be too high. So, some have instead gone to the speakeasy model as a first step. Their friends and neighbors are spreading the open message only with those they trust.
How ironic. That’s exactly what happened with speakeasies in the 1920s, before prohibition was lifted.
This week marks the 87th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition. The 21st Amendment was ratified Dec. 15, 1933; businesses resumed serving alcohol immediately thereafter.
Businesses are now looking for a “21st Amendment 2.0.”
Until that lifeline comes, plan on learning the secret knock if you want to go out for lunch or dinner, have a drink, lift weights or work out.
Under the present coronavirus-related edicts, speakeasies will continue to be a modern-day phenomenon.
- Roger Harnack is the publisher of Free Press Publishing.
Email him at [email protected].