LYNNWOOD — Aaron Burke isn’t the only pirate fanatic in Snohomish County.
On a recent birthday, he took about 20 fellow scalawags to Vessel Taphouse near Lynnwood, with nearly all of them decked out in eyepatches, tricornes and swashbuckling gear.
“It’s a huge identity thing for me. I’ve been into pirate culture for many, many years, and I was excited when Vessel first opened,” said Burke, a Microsoft employee whose home is festooned with model ships and octopus art. “You can pull up in full pirate garb at 5 p.m. on a Thursday and nobody blinks. I’ve done that.”
But in the past week, the venue lost the part-time pirate — as well as staff, bands and other customers — over a show with advertised discounted prices for people sick with COVID-19.
“Come see the show, maybe catch the virus or just stay home and whine,” Vessel Taphouse posted to Facebook last Friday. “Tickets 10 bucks or 6 with proof of Omicron positive test!!”
The so-called “I’m too sick to attend” show sparked a firestorm of backlash at 15615 Highway 99. Owner Steve Hartley said four employees quit and three bands refused to play another show that weekend, including headliner Atrocity Girl, a Seattle-based rock band.
They later added: “catch our next SAFE show at Jules Maes Saloon next Saturday.”
Hartley told The Daily Herald the post was “an ill-advised attempt at humor,” and the responsible employee has since been let go. The employee’s identity is being protected, he said, due to “pretty nasty” online comments.
“We were getting comments that we were trying to infect the public,” Hartley said. “Clearly we have no interest in that. People aren’t going to come and drink if they get sick, and we know that.”
Screenshots of Vessel’s since-deleted post made their way into local community and music forums, where some called for people to stop patronizing the pirate bar. Others criticized the venue’s response: a slew of posts offering apologies, explanations and discounted drinks. All were quickly deleted.
Hartley said the post stemmed from frustrations over people and bands who are hesitant to turn out due to the pandemic. When bands have been paid some money up front and then back out last-minute, he said, “it’s hard for us to hold them accountable for obvious reasons.”
Burke, the pirate enthusiast, lives a quick drive away from Vessel. He says the local pirate community is bigger than you might expect.
“We’re everywhere,” he said.
The bar’s response, he said, feels like a “classic non-apology.”
He pointed to an online message from “Vessel’s Legal Counsel” informing people of their First Amendment rights and saying: “If you don’t feel safe in a public setting, please don’t come to Vessel.”
“I feel like they’re trying to play the victim,” Burke said. “If they can’t stand by what they’re saying for more than 24 hours, then why are you saying it at all?”
Burke and Lynnwood electrician Kevin Brighton both said they would like to see the bar up its safety protocols.
“I think the opportunity was missed with the stance the owners of that establishment have taken,” Brighton said. “And it’s echoing really hard in the community. Regardless of their personal beliefs and stuff, they’re wanting our business and we want to give them the business. But we want to do it on these terms.”
Burke said many in the local “geek community” will likely steer clear of the whimsical bar, but others have seized the opportunity to support the joint. Hartley said there are still enough employees to host shows.
Spokane musician Bret Allen, of Bret Allen and the Northern Rebels, was to play Thursday in what he described online as a “response party.”
“This cool ass bar is under attack by vax happy anti freedom type folks,” he posted online. “So it’s up to good people to stand up for what’s right.”
Vessel seems unlikely to require proof of vaccine, as some have suggested. Unless Snohomish County requires it, the bar told customers, “we’re not going to do this.”
One Vessel bartender who recently quit, and asked to remain anonymous, told The Herald that bar staff followed public health guidance. Owners, she said, never encouraged people to shirk state or local directives. She said the frustration that precipitated the bar’s controversial post is understandable.
“But that was the wrong way to vent it out,” she said. “I, and most of my friends, will not be back. That bridge is burned.”
Customers, Hartley said, “have wildly different opinions” on the bar and public health measures.
“So it leaves us in a lurch on not really knowing what to do,” he said.
Hartley said the bar hasn’t been able to pay rent, and was forced to let employees go, who will now “be in pretty dire straits in terms of paying their rent and feeding themselves.”
A Facebook post this week read: “we fully encourage EVERYONE, regardless of your beliefs or thoughts on these issues, to come in for REASONABLE and THOUGHTFUL debate with your fellow patrons.”