The Pandemic Changed St. Louis, One Little Way After Another

We lost trivia nights and gained QR codes. Now the question is what comes next

click to enlarge COVID-19 has taken down the classic trivia night. - AUGUST JENNEWEIN / UMSL
AUGUST JENNEWEIN / UMSL
COVID-19 has taken down the classic trivia night.

When's the last time you went to a trivia night? I'm not talking about trivia night at a bar or one of those virtual trivias on Zoom (ugh).

What I mean is that peculiarly St. Louis thing where you and eight of your friends' friends gather in a church basement or a union hall, drink and fill out sheet after sheet of answers until you're bleary-eyed and a bit tipsy, and the winning table gets an envelope of cash. I'm talking about trivia nights with BYOB and spectacular potluck spreads — where the table next to you inevitably brings a giant Crockpot of molten Buffalo chicken dip, and your group, with its sad sack of White Castle, is green-eyed with jealousy. Those trivia nights.

They're a blast, and they're a St. Louis institution that the pandemic has largely stolen from us. Maybe a few nonprofits managed to pull off their trivia nights in that brief blip last February when COVID-19 cases hit a temporary lull. Most didn't. The old customs have been swept away, and in some cases, it's not clear what will replace them, if we'll ever go back to that shared Crockpot.

Yet, we've soldiered on. We had to. COVID may still rage, but quarantine could only last so long; not only do our kids need school, but we need love and companionship — and art. For every canceled trivia night, St. Louis boasts a restaurant that stayed open, a theater that rebounded, a show that went on.

The show is now a bit different. A few venues (the Rep, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) still check vaccination status. Fewer still make the audience mask up. We've gotten used to frantically Googling "COVID policies" before we head out for the night — even if increasingly there are none.

Work is different, too. Office hours are optional, flexible and seem to be ever shifting. So many people work from home at least a few days a week that you now notice it on the roads — nobody goes to the office on Fridays — and even in-person meetings consistently include a Zoom component.

Face to face, we gingerly check in before we shake hands or hug, much less reach for a shared appetizer. And when we order that appetizer, we're not doing it off a menu. Nowadays, it's all about the QR code, a technology that seemed headed for the dustbin of history only a few years ago. Looking at your phone instead of your dining companion? Used to be totally rude, now totally necessary.

Less rude: Now everyone at Schnucks gets in a single orderly queue. Who knew it would take a global pandemic to reorganize our checkout lines?

Somehow, this rowdy city seems a bit quieter. Bars that used to stay open until 1 a.m. now often close at 10:45 p.m. You used to get to linger with that last drink; now you're gently moved along. So many hospitality workers have left the business, restaurants have to keep their remaining staff happy. With so many restaurants closed — a jarring number for good — the customer isn't always right. On many nights, you need a table more than they need customers. That never used to be the case in St. Louis.

Socializing has shifted. All those months of bars being closed made us realize that our backyard firepit isn't so bad, and our neighbors can be downright fun. We learned how to drink outside when it was cold, hot and even rainy. We learned that it's not about being seen so much as about seeing people we love — and being able to hear them.

We learned things about ourselves. We learned you could take away our childcare, our favorite haunts and our routines, and we'd somehow be OK. We learned that even in a time of tragedy, life goes on. We learned that global pandemics are far from the great equalizer we were promised. We learned that the rich would get richer, the poor would truly suffer and so many of us in the great struggling middle would struggle on. We learned that we are lucky. So many were not.

Earlier this month, the CDC lifted many of its remaining COVID guidelines, suggesting that testing asymptomatic people after exposure no longer made sense and that "COVID-19 is here to stay." With that, you can expect many performing arts companies to drop their testing regimens. Vaccine cards? A year from now, they may feel as archaic as pagers.

And so perhaps in the coming months, trivia nights will again begin to pop up across the metro. Even the very careful St. Louis Symphony Orchestra dropped mask/vaccine requirements last spring — and after a five-week hiatus last winter for surging COVID cases, bar service resumed at intermission. As we continue to inch towards our new normal, surely sweaty church basements and shared Crockpots of cheesy Buffalo chicken will be next.

But even if not, we'll be OK. We've endured worse. We're still here, even if the classic St. Louis-style trivia night isn't.

About The Author

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske is the executive editor of Euclid Media Group, overseeing publications in eight cities. She is the former host of St. Louis on the Air and was previously editor-in-chief of the RFT and the LA Weekly. She lives in St. Louis.
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