Bars Turn To Hibernation As Industry Struggles With Cuomo’s Changing COVID Directives

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In mid-to-late-March, when the puddles of grey filth frozen hard against Bushwick’s curbs finally melt away, new political realities and the hopeful abatement of a tenacious plague will be cause for unbridled celebration.

The pickings for a neighborhood joint in which to celebrate, however, may be slim if a recent avalanche of bar closures becomes permanent.

Owing in large part to Governor Cuomo’s expected, but nevertheless economically devastating, executive order re-eliminating indoor dining in New York City, several cherished neighborhood saloons have switched off their ignitions and gone silent. While many owners are hastily moth-balling their properties in the expectation spring will bring a cessation of the pandemic and a consequent lifting of Cuomo’s restrictions, nobody can be sure whether, after 2-3 profitless months doing nothing but bleeding funds in a green stream of rent and bills, they will have the means to reopen.

In a year of wild unpredictability, one constant in New York City has been Cuomo’s tight grip on regulations related to stemming the growth of COVID – which many in the NYC bar industry see as undemocratic high-handedness. In their eyes, no sooner had one fresh bouquet of executive orders been complied with than a new one arrived, whose specificities often contradicted the previous batch, wasting time and – above all – money.

After a while, it started to smack of, rather than just bureaucratic obtuseness, actually vindictiveness.

This according to Paul King and Kristen North, owners of Bushwick’s favorite snark-steeped, mammary-themed dive bar, Boobie Trap. The pair sat for a huddled, blue-lipped interview one chilly January afternoon at a patio table within shouting distance of the on-duty bartender. One of the key themes of the conversation, and one that would crop up again in other conversations with bar owners, is the apparent lack of effective representation that might lobby on the industry’s behalf in Albany.

“We have no advocate,” said Kristen North. “It’s a dictatorship at this point. We get told what we can and can’t do and have no voice in it at all.”

Nodding in agreement, Paul King added, “And if you do make enough ruckus to be noticed, then they fuck with you. That’s a fact. You’re actually the first person we’ve talked to, for that very reason. We were going to stay quiet but what else can they take from us?”

The agency in charge of much of the Covid-related compliance is the State Liquor Authority (SLA). Prior to the pandemic, the agency was mainly concerned with liquor law enforcement — making sure, for example, that a bar doesn’t buy its booze in New Jersey to skirt the steeper New York tariffs. But now, the agency has had to set their shoulders to a whole other set of tasks, ones related to the pandemic. In the process, the department has started to be seen by many in the industry as Cuomo’s go-to truncheon keeping bars and restaurants towing the line – a line, seemingly, difficult to tow at times.

“Any time [Cuomo] comes up with a new executive order, which he does almost daily, it’s up to the SLA to enforce it,” said King.

“Out of nowhere he gets bored and says, ‘Nobody can pee in your restaurant.’ Luckily, enough people fought back on that and got it overturned on the same day.”

Another edict enforced by the SLA, passed last July, made mandatory the serving of food alongside drinks, even for bars without kitchens. While prior to the order, New York bars did have to at least offer food, patrons weren’t required by law to order it.

“He didn’t want people just drinking,” said Paul with a bemused shake of his head.

“That’s why to us [Cuomo’s actions] almost seem vindictive and spiteful,” said North. “It feels like he’s got a vendetta against bars.”

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It’s difficult to prove conclusively the existence of outright malice on the part of a politician or government agency — that there exists, for example, a pact between Governor Cuomo and the SLA to punish those who speak out against what they see as callous iron-fistedness. However, examining at least one case from last summer, that of the East Village bar Lucky, it’s easy to see how that conclusion isn’t a stretch.

As Grub Street reported in September, following July’s rule requiring bar patrons to purchase food, Lucky owner Abby Ehmann circulated an online petition demanding the ruling be overturned. The petition went out on July 27, and her bar was shut down by the SLA on August 3.

Ehmann was soon able to re-open, but only after she paid a fine, which originally bore a price tag of $35,000; her lawyers talked it down to $10,000.

Boobie Trap has been able to remain open thanks, they say, to an extremely loyal customer base not afraid of frozen boogers, and to what North terms her own business’ zealousness in adhering to the rules.

As the interview wound down and we got up to leave, though, King capped things off with a weary recital of the names of several local bars currently or intending  very shortly to go into hibernation.

These bars include Honore, 3 Diamond Door, Old Stanley’s, Pearl’s, Bootleg Bar, Star Liner and  Windjammer. At least one, Darlings, has already closed for good.

Adding to that melancholy litany are a few King didn’t mention: Carmelo’s, Left Hand Path, The Johnsons, The Cobra Clu, The Bad Old Days, Dromedary, Echo Bravo, Forrest Point and Old Timers.

On the border with Bed Stuy is another hibernator, the bar-cum-arcade gallery-cum live music venue Wonderville. While the owners, Mark Kleback and Stephanie Gross, themselves know of several other bars battening down the hatches until the vaccine takes effect and restrictions on bars ease, they declined to enumerate them during our interview. But they did express frustrations similar to those of North and King.

“The orders that Cuomo is passing are really hurting New York businesses,” said Kleback. “I think something that we’re looking for is New York State to have an advisory panel made up of owners from bars, restaurants, gyms, music venues, because it is pretty clear that the governor’s office has no idea how these executive orders are affecting businesses.”

“We’re grateful for the stimulus, but Cuomo is really the biggest obstacle to businesses surviving.”

According to Wonderville’s owners, Cuomo’s decisions clash with the current statistics on Covid’s resurgence.

“A lot of agencies will give you different data and ‘facts’, but the New York Hospitality Alliance says we’re not the major reason for Covid spreading,” said Gross.

The last estimate by the state, published December 11, indicated that the restaurant/bar industry accounted for just 1.4 percent of new cases, while the biggest culprit in the uptick statewide has been, overwhelmingly, private household gatherings, at 73.84 percent.

Further angering industry leaders was Cuomo’s decision to close indoor dining only in New York City, while statewide leaving open the option of 25-50% indoor capacity.

Despite Boobie Trap owner Kristine North’s assertion that her industry lacked representation in Albany, a few efforts have, in fact, been made by politicians to pad the SLA’s rougher edges. One was spearheaded by state senator Jessica Ramos last August. Her attempt was bolstered by the support of over twenty other senators, who demanded Cuomo (and, by extension, his regulatory agencies) tread lighter. It included a statement by Ramos in which she opined that “Strict enforcement guidelines and high fines are destroying business’ chances to survive the economic catastrophe brought by the pandemic.”

The following month, Cuomo announced restaurants and bars could begin offering indoor dining at 25% capacity. While it’s unknown whether Cuomo’s decision was influenced by the Ramos-backed agitation, the reopening was a welcome move. Any  heart-gladdening effects, though, were necessarily blunted in short order by the sudden onset of fall, followed by a particularly chilly early winter. Then, COVID came roaring back and the indoor dining edict was reversed.

Along with the reversal came new rules, including restrictions on portable propane heaters.

Portable gas heaters are far less cost-prohibitive than electric versions, which often send restaurant and bars’ utility bills through the roof. According to Boobie Trap owner North, if used they would also threaten to overwhelm the already taxed circuit breakers in her aged building.

New rules and the renewal of old ones have, in turn, birthed at least one more stab at getting Cuomo’s attention, this one authored by a collection of  bar owners who would rather, for obvious reasons, remain anonymous.

Like Ramos before her, acting as messenger for the coalition of petitioning tavern owners is state senator Julia Salazar, who represents New York’s 18th district in Albany. A letter has been drawn up, supported by her endorsement, with the intent of presenting it to the state legislature.

Parties interested in adding their name to the petition can anonymously sign here. Once enough signatures are gathered (the organizers are hoping it goes statewide), it will be sent via Salazar to Albany and, hopefully, Cuomo’s desk.

The letter praises city-level governance as having been reasonably flexible and fair-minded, while castigating the state: “The SLA has imposed harsh penalties and suspended liquor licenses. Executive orders are issued, seemingly with little or no consultation from the legislature or small business owners, and certainly without appropriate recognition of the particular hardships and barriers faced by our industry.”

The letter goes on to detail its demands. These include the creation of an advisory board to “determine the best course of action for future executive orders,” frequent consultation with legislature, and compensation to “offset costs incurred” in making structural changes made in compliance with new laws (such as outdoor seating, sandbag installation, etc.).

Back in August, Governor Cuomo beseeched New York City’s absent rich to come back from the Hamptons and Cape Cod and help gas up the economy. He was quoted as saying, “I’ll buy you a drink.”

Where precisely, upon their eventual return, the ermine-and-pearls set will be treated to said gubernatorial libation is a matter for some speculation — the state of the hospitality industry being what it currently is. If all goes well and spring brings a full reopening of New York’s economy, visitors and locals alike may want to be on the lookout for the sight of Governor Cuomo and any number of his bejeweled companions passing around a paper-bagged bottle of Moët Chandon on the steps of the Plaza Hotel.

Cover photo credit: Matt Fink

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