New York City's sleepless, crackling nightlife was put to bed on Monday — a mandated hibernation period with no end in sight, and no guarantee things will look the same when it wakes up. In the final hours before last call, some New Yorkers gathered in their favorite bars, raising glasses to uncertainty. Most stayed at home.
"This is a once in a lifetime thing," said Adam Freeland, a Bay Ridge resident and fifth-generation Brooklynite. "I remember my grandfather telling me about them sinking U-boats in the New York harbor. No one in my family was as scared as they are now."
As COVID-19 spreads through the city, Freeland gathered on Monday with his unofficial family — a group of regulars and performers who call the Way Station in Prospect Heights their second home. Emails were exchanged for virtual happy hour. Props from a monthly burlesque show were stuffed into trash bags. Bottles of liquor and cases of beer were sold off at cost to help pay staff.
Following a semi-social-distance-appropriate singalong to R.E.M.'s "End Of The World," the crowd of a few dozen filtered out onto the sidewalk shortly after sundown, armed with quarantine rations of liquor and intentions to stay in touch.
On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all bars and restaurants across New York closed by 8 p.m. — overruling Mayor Bill de Blasio's previous deadline of Tuesday — in an unprecedented effort to staunch the highly-contagious coronavirus that has ripped through the region.
Across Williamsburg, the Lower East Side and the East Village, the sound of metal gates slamming shut echoed through eerily quiet neighborhoods. Many places had already shuttered by the cutoff hour, preemptively closing their doors this weekend. Handmade signs taped to empty storefronts urged New Yorkers to take care of one another by staying home.
Fresh Kills Bar in Williamsburg planned to take advantage of a new rule that will allow bars and restaurants to sell alcohol to go (with some stipulations) — noting they'd keep one window open for tiki drinks and another for soups. But most owners told Gothamist they'd have to close up entirely, unable to pay for staff or basic utilities.
By and large, service workers said they understood the necessity of clamping down on gathering places in an effort to flatten the curve. But the acknowledgement did little to soften the blow for an industry of 300,000 people who now find themselves out of work overnight. Many said they had little faith in getting help from the government, and were instead turning to networks of mutual aid.
"Most of the people I talk to are on their last few dollars this month," said Alex Harwood, a sound-mixer who worked, until this weekend, at Mercury Lounge, Baby's All Right, and Trans Pecos. "There’s a lot of communal awareness and conversations now about people’s inability to make rent and what not."
A bartender at the High Dive in Park Slope has floated the idea of collecting $20 donations over Venmo to listen to her former patrons problems over Skype — something that multiple establishments are now considering. On Monday, a flood of workers seeking unemployment benefits crashed the New York Labor Department's website.
In France, which is experiencing a similarly unprecedented lockdown, President Emmanuel Macron has promised to suspend utility bills and rent for small businesses during the outbreak, in an effort to ensure companies will continue paying workers. Such assurances have not been offered to New York City's business owners.
Anders Heidel, the owner of Way Station for nearly a decade, said the extent of the city's outreach so far has been an online survey gauging interest in possible no-interest loans and cash grants. The federal relief needed to keep the industry afloat has yet to materialize, though there has been growing momentum to bail out casino, airline, and oil and gas companies.
"I don't know if I can make it through this...We’re just going to see a rollout of bankruptcies from restaurants and bars," said Heidel. Without a massive relief effort, he predicted, "New York City will be virtually unrecognizable after this."
As tearful patrons streamed out of the bar for possibly the final time, Heidel offered an elbow-bump goodbye. "We'll get through this," he promised. "Somehow."