25% Is Not Enough: Bars Go To Court To Demand Half-Capacity Amid Pandemic

Vanessa Hock

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Indoor dining reopened late last week across New York City at one-quarter capacity, but a lawyer representing 74 bars, restaurants, and venues wants a court to force a reopening of indoor dining at at least 50% capacity. The demand comes from the latest motion in the ongoing lawsuit between the bars and Governor Cuomo and New York City officials. 

In the motion filed in federal court before Judge Denise Cote, attorney and “TV legal analyst” Kenneth Belkin stressed that the businesses should be allowed to operate at 50% capacity, not just to keep their businesses afloat, but to “be able to put food on the tables, clothes on their backs and a roof over the heads of theirs and their employees’ families.”

Belkin’s suit is the subject of much local interest — among the bars involved are: Our Wicked Lady, which seeks almost $500,000 from the state; The Richardson in East Williamsburg, which wants about the same; Ridgewood’s Bonus Room, which wants $275,000 and the miniature empire of Brooklyn bars and restaurants managed by Rafaello VanCouten, including Claudia’s in East Williamsburg and C. Lo’s in Ridgewood and which are seeking a whopping $10.3 million total from the state.

Wonderville, the arcade-themed bar that took over the space that used to be Secret Project Robot, is also among the many bars in Brooklyn filing suit against the state. (Vanessa Hock)

Many of the businesses involved in the lawsuit say they were forced to lay off their entire staff or shut down completely. Belkin’s motion came on February 5th, shortly after Governor Cuomo announced that restaurants would be reopening at quarter capacity on Valentine’s Day. The next week, Cuomo pushed that reopening date to last Friday. 

June Ramirez, who owns the Steel Mill in Bushwick says the bar had only been open for four months before Cuomo’s executive order last March initially shut it down. On behalf of the bar, Belkin is seeking over $80,000 in lost revenue and another $10,000 in expenses tied to retrofitting the bar to comply with earlier indoor-dining restrictions. 

“We opened back up for outdoor dining on June 23rd, things were well despite all the harassment from the SLA and the city agencies, who instead of helping made matters worse with fines and really bad policing,” says Ramirez. 

For example, in mid-December the city banned outdoor dining customers from using indoor bathrooms and, within a matter of days, then lifted that ban after public outrage. Another order restricted customers from entering establishments to pick their food. At one point, employees could not consume meals or beverages inside, which meant lunch breaks had to be taken outside. 

Despite Cuomo’s attempt to curb the spread of COVID, the highest sources of spread have private indoor gatherings inside people’s homes. 

“In-home indoor gatherings account for 73.4% of COVID 19 transmission in New York,” Belkin argues in his motion.  

Operating at half-capacity would alleviate the number of those gatherings by allowing people to gather in controlled and regulated environments, the argument goes.

Restaurants, unlike homes, are better able to “employ measures such as contact tracing and temperature checking of all patrons, as well as enforcement of social distancing measures,” he writes. 

The motion also notes that many restaurants outside of the city have been allowed to operate at half-capacity, something Belkin says isn’t fair. A response from the state is due in the case February 23rd.

“We feel the treatment towards the restaurant industry is very unfair,” the owner of the Steel Mill tells Bushwick Daily. The bar is suing the state for $90,000. (Vanessa Hock)

“Even at a capacity of fifty percent plaintiffs’ financial survival is not guaranteed,” the motion this month warns, adding “The public interest is certainly not served by the economic devastation.”

Last December, Ramirez told Bushwick Daily that she took part in a rally at Times Square that was organized by the New York State Latino Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge Association. Although the rally drew attention, Ramirez said the city ignored their pleas and that was what convinced her to sign up for Belkin’s lawsuit, captioned: Our Wicked Lady LLC et al v. Cuomo. 

“We feel the treatment towards the restaurant industry is very unfair —the numbers are out there. We only account for 1.4% of cases while home gatherings account for 74%” Ramirez said. 

“Where is the science behind Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to close restaurants down when we are not the cause of infection rates going up?”

Top photo by Vanessa Hock. 

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