In the weeks leading up to the holidays, it became almost impossible to obtain at-home COVID-19 tests due to the fast spread of the omicron variant.
At the same time, dozens of restaurants and bars were in various states of shutdown because of exposures among their staff or general COVID fatigue.
So Lisa Cannistraci — who runs Henrietta Hudson, one of only a handful of lesbian bars left in the city — came up with an idea: providing testing at the venue.
The bar has now partnered with City Testing Centers, a community outreach and testing clinic that runs on-site testing for various kinds of businesses including schools, conferences and theaters, to provide free rapid and PCR tests for patrons.
For Cannistraci, the idea was an instant hit.
"What I noticed was when people got their negative test [they were] joyous," she told Gothamist. "I heard people screaming in the streets. It's like the golden ticket. People just jumping up and down and hugging each other, and then they go dancing."
They've tested around 400 people in less than a week at Henrietta's. But so far, the trend has not yet taken off. The logistical and financial challenges can make it a heavy lift for establishments that operate on tight margins even in the best of times. But it’s another example of the creative lengths that bar and restaurant owners have been forced to go in a desperate two years of pandemic.
Aside from the outdoor dining sheds scattered throughout the city, and the to-go cocktails that will now be a permanent amenity, bars and restaurants have tried using comically-oversized plastic bubbles and embraced QR codes and other digital tools to entice people to come in person.
Cannistraci herself had already started to pivot from a dance-centric club to more of a "lounge vibe" to try to mitigate concerns about omicron spread.
But she acknowledged her new test-and-dance method is difficult to replicate: "I don't think it's a super easy thing to do.”
She said she happened to meet one of the founders of City Testing Centers at an Eric Adams event the week before the election. "I think I just got lucky, because of my networking capabilities and stuff like that," she said. City Testing Centers did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Implementing the system was another challenge.
While City Testing Centers and its affiliate Community Testing Services provide all the equipment needed for the tests, the company is stretched thin at the moment. The website currently notes, "Due to the recent extreme demand for testing, we can no longer accept appointments at any of our locations". So to be able to operate, Cannistraci had to get seven of her employees trained in how to swab noses and handle materials, turning the bar into a mostly self-run pop-up testing site.
Cannistraci is in a unique situation — there's no cost for patrons and no cost to the bar as well to provide the testing. City Testing Centers says on their website, "Any billing is done through our company billing department via the The Families First Coronavirus Response Act."
Other venues that have tried to take testing into their own hands haven't had as easy a time attaining or implementing it.
When people got their negative test [they were] joyous...It's like the golden ticket.
Last winter, shortly after reopening in a new location at Hudson River Park’s Pier 57, City Winery started a pilot program requiring customers who were dining indoors to take an on-site rapid COVID test, becoming the first in the city to do so. They partnered with Accurex Diagnostic Services to administer the exams, and diners had to prepay for the $50 tests on Resy in order to make a reservation. (City Winery says they were being charged $57 for each test.)
Things seemed to be stabilizing last summer and fall until omicron hit. Now they've been limping along for the last month, "with half of our staff having gotten sick at one point, and the musicians getting sick and having to cancel shows."
"I feel like Bugs Bunny where a giant safe just falls from the sky on your head and you think you just got cleared of the last falling safe, and boom, another one hits you in the head," Dorf said.
Along with updating their COVID policies in response to the latest surge, requiring a negative test and proof of vaccination before entering, Dorf had the foresight to order 5,000 BinaxNOW rapid tests directly from Abbott Laboratories to provide for City Winery staffs around the country (there are eight venues mostly located on the East Coast).
At $15 a pop, he spent around $75,000 out of his own pocket to do this. But instead of going to the various locations, the entire shipment ended up coming to NYC. With the surge underway, Dorf started offering them to Manhattan patrons for free.
"I had three or four different club owners and new owners reach out to me when they saw our policy, and wanted to know where we bought our tests," he said. "I told everyone I was really lucky, I had ordered them two months before. They all came to New York, and then omicron hits, so I was able to have a big supply in New York."
He thinks that if the rapid tests were more widely available, more businesses would be doing what he did and offer them to customers.
"I look at it exactly the way I do exit signs and emergency lights and sprinkler systems — these are our tools to keep people safe, and our job in [this] business is to keep people safe," he said. "The more they feel comfortable, the more homey, more a better vibe, then they'll hopefully spend more time drinking and eating and in my house rather than staying home."
Dorf's excess supply only lasted so long — they've very recently run out of rapid tests, and like everyone else, are having difficulties getting more. In mid-December, a few mobile testing companies reached out about setting up sites outside City Winery, but with the surge in cases by the holidays, those opportunities quickly dried up as well.
"We got very excited by having someone else pay for it and actually even administer the tests in front of City Winery, but then when the system got overrun, sometime around December 20th or 21st, those companies went away,” Dorf said. “And they obviously started utilizing their testing for more vulnerable [areas] or other things rather than entertainment."
NYC Hospitality Alliance's executive director Andrew Rigie said he hasn’t heard of the practice at many venues.
"Unfortunately the cost, accessibility and implementation of testing makes it very difficult for most restaurants and bars to have such a policy, and that’s why government should be providing tests to these businesses, particularly for their employees," he said.
But there are precedents for this strategy: a bar in Copenhagen garnered headlines last spring for offering customers a rapid test and a beer while they were waiting for results. This week, a few other places around the world also started to try it out.
Cannistraci, the owner of Henrietta Hudson, said she doesn't like to ever give out recommendations to other venues on how to handle their businesses, but the on-site testing has been essential for her bar.
"It has been really, really great for us. Is it perfect? No. But it's that extra layer, it's that extra added precaution," she said. Because it's mandatory for patrons to get the tests on the weekends, the bar has resumed having dance nights on Friday and Saturdays, and has even brought back karaoke this past Wednesday. "If I'm going to have 100 people in the bar dancing, I don't think I would feel comfortable if we didn't do this. It's about how I want to be a responsible partner to my patients and my guests."