Still shuttered: pandemic keeps Mount Shasta Vets Club closed

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald

It’s unusual to drive by Watson’s Vets Club on Mt. Shasta Boulevard only to see it dark and shuttered, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night. But since mid-June, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that’s been the situation.

Kris Watson, who purchased Mount Shasta’s oldest watering hole along with his wife, Kelsey in May of 2018, is “playing the waiting game” for the state to give him the go-ahead to reopen. 

Kris Watson, owner of Watson's Vets Club in Mount Shasta, is waiting as patiently as possible for the state to give him the go-ahead to reopen his historic bar.

Siskiyou County is currently in the “moderate” COVID-19 risk category, which allows restaurants to open at 50% capacity. But bars are a different story, and Watson is unable to reopen the Vets Club in any capacity because they don’t have a commercial kitchen like many other local bars do.

The bar is the Watson family’s only source of income. The couple – who moved to Mount Shasta 10 years ago from New Jersey after falling in love with the town – have three kids, ages 7, 5 and 2.

“It’s a double whammy for me,” Watson said. “Not only is the business taking a huge hit, but I also bartend two or three times a week, so there’s that income gone, too.”

In total, nine people are out of a job until Siskiyou County moves out of the orange tier and into the yellow, or “minimal risk” tier, with fewer than one new case per 100,000 residents per day and a testing rate of under 2%. This includes five other Vets Club bartenders, one cleaner, and two bouncers.

“Some of them have two jobs, but a couple of them have been out of work all this time,” Watson said.

The window outside of Watson's Vets Club in Mount Shasta has a message for everyone waiting patiently for the historic bar to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Although many in the community are outraged that he’s unable to reopen, Watson said he’s not willing to defy the California Alcoholic Beverage Control’s regulations since a liquor license is so precious.

“It’s like a driver’s license,” Watson said. “It’s a privilege, not a right. If you don’t follow the regulations, you’ll lose it and be shut down.”

Watson’s last “normal” day open was March 17, but it was a dud, since the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the news and put a damper on the St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

“At midnight on St. Patrick’s Day, we had, like, 12 people in here. Usually we have 100,” Watson said.

On March 18, Gov. Newsom imposed a stay at home order, which closed bars across the state. Watson’s stayed closed until late June, when Kris was permitted to reopen.

Related:Purple, red, orange, yellow: How do California's new COVID-19 tiers work?

Watson said things were busy those four weeks – “record breaking, even,” but on July 13, California’s COVID-19 situation worsened and he was forced to close again. Restaurants were allowed to serve outside only. Most of the bars in south Siskiyou were able to reopen in some capacity because they also serve food.

Watson explained there are different types of liquor licenses. A Type 47 license is for restaurants that serve beer, wine, and spirits. A Type 48 alcohol permit is used in establishments where individuals are required to be 21 or older to enter, namely in bars and nightclubs, leaving the Vets Club out of luck.

Watson was recently able to qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the  federal Small Business Administration and he’s working on a plan for the best way to utilize it. According to new guidelines,  in order to have the loan forgiven, 60% of the funds must be used for payroll and the other 40% can be used for utilities and other expenses, Watson said. His dilemma is that he’s unable to open and keep his employees working.

“It’s great that we got it, though,” Watson said. “That’s the first help we’ve received.”

Watson was also able to obtain a $6,000 Siskiyou Recovery Grant and he’s applied for another, which could be as much as $10,000 to help keep his business afloat.

More:Siskiyou restaurants adapt to COVID-19 with outdoor seating

More:North State real estate market stays hot through coronavirus; sales also up across California

He said he’s happy to see the state’s new coronavirus reopening framework, which “gives us a plan, some hope that we can open at some point.”

The new system is based on the local spread of coronavirus in counties using two key metrics: testing positivity rate and the growth of cases.

Although the pandemic has been particularly devastating for his family, Kris said he’s trying to remain positive.

“There are some good things to come out of this,” he said. “My yard has never looked better, and my kids have never seen me more.”

In addition, he’s been able to open a radio and podcasting station upstairs from the bar, which is broadcasting 24 hours a day at 

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time,” Watson said.

It's unusual to see the bar at Watson's Vets Club empty, especially on Labor Day, but that's the situation thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured behind the bar is owner Kris Watson.

Mount Shasta’s oldest bar

The Vets Club was originally built in 1896. Five years after it opened, the town caught fire but the brick building, along with the former Coffee Connection next door, prevented the fire from sweeping through the rest of the town’s wooden buildings.

The bar (with a brothel upstairs) was rebuilt in the rubble and has been open ever since.

Watson said to his knowledge, the bar has only been closed for any length of time twice during its 124 year history: during prohibition and between the ownerships of Fred Nebiolini and Gino Fiorucci.

The bar has changed ownership only a handful of times since the 1960s. It was owned by Ray Chinca – once the mayor of Mount Shasta – before Nebiolini took over. From there, Fiorucci bought the business, followed by Butch and Amber Silberberger, who sold it to the Watsons in 2018.

Stepping into the darkened bar is like going back in time – the bar itself is more than 100 years old and the decor is a nod to Mount Shasta’s earliest days.

It’s open 365 days a year – Watson said he always has a bartender or two who volunteers to stay open on Christmas or Thanksgiving.

He said it’s always been a place where local and visitors can come together for a good time. “The people have been amazingly supportive,” said Watson. “People have been reaching out to see if they can help ... it really reminds me why I love living here.”

Kris Watson sits at the empty bar at Watson's Vets Club on Sept. 7, 2020.

The Watsons had only visited Mount Shasta once, and only long enough to do their laundry at the laundromat and get a glimpse of the mountain before they decided to move to the town of 3,200.

They were sick of the hustle and bustle of New Jersey, and embarked on a tour of the United States to choose a new home, Watson said. 

“We were on our way to visit friends in Redondo Beach and someone said, ‘if you’re going that way, make sure to stop in Mount Shasta.’”

When they returned home  to the East Coast and each made a list of places they’d like to relocate, Mount Shasta appeared at the top of both of their lists.

And the rest is history.

“It just hit us,” said Kris. “This is it.”