Ever since photos and videos of mass gatherings on Steinway Street in Astoria spread in mid-July, a task force created by Governor Andrew Cuomo—including members of the State Liquor Authority and the Sheriff's Office—has been focused on cracking down on restaurants and bars violating the state's COVID-19 guidelines. Over 100 NYC establishments have had their liquor licenses suspended as a result, with almost 50 percent of them getting suspensions because of indoor dining.
According to an analysis by Gothamist, over 500 violations have been given out and 133 restaurants and bars throughout the state have been suspended since the pandemic started, with a vast majority in the city since the crackdown began in late July. Between July 20th and August 11th, there have been at least 102 establishments around the five boroughs suspended (plus a few in Westchester, Long Island and upstate New York), 50 of which were cited for having people dining or drinking inside their premises.
Bill Crowley, spokesperson for the SLA, explained that since July 20th, there have been hundreds of compliance checks happening every night, mostly in the city. He emphasized that the vast majority of businesses are abiding by the new COVID guidelines: "About one in nine places we see have egregious violations, and are given emergency suspensions in those places, but most places are complying," he said.
According to the new rules Cuomo laid out last month, restaurants who get three violations will have their liquor licenses suspended; but any "egregious" violations, such as indoor dining, can result in an automatic suspension.
Indoor dining is "a pretty easy case for us," Crowley said. "That hasn't been allowed in NYC since March 16th, this is not new. That is like five years ago in COVID time."
Tips have mostly come through the NY Pause statewide complaint portal, as well as referrals from local police departments. The suspensions have been given out all across the city, but as you can see in the maps below, the majority of violations have come in Manhattan.
The violations have ranged from a few people being served indoors to places having full-on nightclub-esque atmospheres: on August 8th, patrons were seen inside Dark Bullet Sake and Oyster Bar on the Upper West Side drinking at the bar and playing pool with no food being served (when investigators entered, fifteen people immediately exited the premises with alcohol still in hand). At the End Zone in Beechurst, seven people were observed on August 6th being served inside the premises from a bartender without a facial covering.
Twelve people were seen being served food inside Ponte Vecchio Restaurant in Bay Ridge on August 6th; at least 10 more people were observed without face masks walking around inside as well. On July 31st, at least 35 people, most of whom weren't wearing masks, were seen drinking without food inside Shinsen in Chinatown as some people got lap dances from topless dancers (who also weren't wearing face coverings). And on August 2nd, at least 40 people were seen inside La Vue in Sheepshead Bay, with another 150+ people drinking, dancing, and enjoying hookah on the rooftop.
Also among the places immediately shutdown: Cloister Café, aka Café Tucano, the spot where nightclub Provocateur had been operating as an illegal nightclub for the last month, hosting parties where tables cost thousands of dollars. In addition to having their license suspended, the owners were hit with seven criminal court summonses.
This is just a smattering of the types of violations that have led to instant suspensions. "We want to ensure places can get licenses back and won't have the same violations happening again," added Crowley. "These are all things we've seen leading to COVID outbreaks around the country."
Despite the fact that everyone agrees most places are doing their best to abide by the rules, the near-constant inspections are have big reverberations around an industry that has already been hit unbelievably hard by the pandemic, and seems on the verge of a complete collapse: "The inspections are creating enormous fears and anxiety for small business owners," said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants and nightlife venues around the city. "Everyday I'm contacted by restaurant owners getting repeated inspections, and inspectors aren't citing anything. It's like they're waiting for something to go wrong, waiting to catch them for some minor issue."
"If there is a restaurant or bar that is blatantly violating safety requirements, there should be enforcement, but the vast majority of eating and drinking establishments are barely holding on by a thread to survive," he said. "We need to focus on education and training, and less enforcement for businesses trying to do the right thing under incredibly difficult circumstances."
According to a survey his organization released last week, four out of every five restaurants in the city were unable to pay any or only part of their rent in July, which he fears is going to lead to a commercial real estate crisis.
"For the handful of noncompliance videos which have popped up on social media, there's hundreds if not thousands of businesses doing the right thing, and we should be highlighting them and what they're contributing to our city instead of pointing out a handful of bad actors and having them drive public policy," he added.
Although the suspensions are indefinite, every business that gets suspended is entitled to a hearing with the three SLA board members, who decide on penalties. The businesses are allowed to make an offer of monetary payment to get their licenses back, and the board can accept that offer, or come back with a counteroffer. Since July 20th, they've been having meetings almost every day to try to deal with the rapidly increasing amount of businesses affected by the rule changes. On Wednesday alone, they voted on over 20 restaurants and bars who have made various offers to reopen.
Those meetings provide a fascinating glimpse into the decision-making happening behind-the-scenes, and the biggest problems which are reoccurring: indoor dining and service, loud music, and places staying open past the 11 p.m. curfew.
The latter has been a particular problem in NYC according to SLA Chairman Vincent Bradley, who made a point on Wednesday of saying that every business would get a counteroffer including a requirement to be shut at 11 p.m.
"I want to make it clear that we've notified them, you're going to be shut period at 11, and if you're not and we find you open, you're going to be closed permanently," he said. "Based on my observations being out there, that's an enormous issue. That's a majority of locations that I've witnessed—even ones that are in compliance are not shutting at 11 o'clock." He noted that he believes the 11 p.m. NYC curfew is "going to continue for quite some time," but businesses can reapply to change their hours once it's lifted.
From the outset, he set the tone by noting that not every business was acting in good faith in trying to abide by the new rules, and the committee wouldn't be rubber-stamping places to reopen for the right amount of money. "The biggest question I look at when I'm analyzing [places] is, based on what we've seen, does this licensing, no matter what they say, even have the desire or the ability to comply with what is required right now. And if they don't, they should not be reopened. And there are some on this list that I think you all will agree do fit into this category."
One of the places discussed was the historic White Horse Tavern, the first bar or restaurant to see its liquor license suspended since outdoor dining restarted in the city in Phase 2. The bar was hit with thirty violations altogether after investigators stopped by several times over June and July and observed multiple instances of rule-breaking.
The bar offered to pay a $40K fine for their license back, but the board members expressed some doubts that they would be able to remain compliant moving forward. SLA General Counsel Gary Meyerhoff argued that the place shouldn't have any music playing because of the crowds it attracts, and "they have not shown any responsibility, at least recently, that they can handle it. I'm not interested in closing the place permanently, and if they have music, I have concerns that is where they're going to end up."
Ultimately, the committee decided on their counteroffer: a $50K fine, the bar has to rip up their outdoor platform and redo it so it's in compliance with state regulations, no music, and they have to be closed by 11 p.m. If they don't abide by that, they get shutdown permanently. "I think this place is pretty egregious," added Commissioner Greely Ford about the fine increase. "Several days of violations. I think a point needs to be made here."
While points are being made, Rigie, the head of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, says that business owners are increasingly frustrated by a lack of empathy from officials. They also haven't been given any indication when they may be able to reopen, which leaves not only their own futures in limbo, but also that of their employees who have been indefinitely furloughed.
And in the meantime, they have a seemingly endless amount of the compliance checks to deal with: "It's daunting, because they're scared they're going to lose their license, they're barely holding on to begin with," Rigie said. "I've heard from countless businesses whose licenses have not been suspended, but they've been inspected over and over again, and they feel like they're being harassed."