Rainy days and Mondays, eh? I’m not going to open the bar today because there’s a 90% chance of rain for pretty much the entire time I’d be over there. I’m gonna take the day to rest up after the weekend. I gotta admit, my sanity is somewhat in question lately. I’m unable to be pleasant…unable to be PRESENT. I am either weeping or ranting; those seem to be my only two settings left on what was once at least a slightly more nuanced dial of emotions. My constant struggle to balance staying in business with staying sane hasn’t been very successful…and for all my joking about “nothing makes sense anymore,” I’ve been feeling this so acutely that my grip on reality is slipping. Watching the “sports news” on TV would have me believe there’s no pandemic at all. Watching the coverage of the Supreme Court nomination hearing reminds me of just how little control any of us have over anything, with most control wielded by alarmingly old and out-of-touch white dudes who truly do not give a shit about anything but their bank accounts. And hearing about the selective neighborhood closures due to COVID spikes is reminding me that aside from life being painfully unfair, NYC is a few more positive test results away from being forced back into lockdown. The inability to make plans has been an inconvenience since March but is now imperiling what little is left of my ability to cope. I just don’t want to do any of this anymore…
Well, it’s been a bit. We re-re-opened almost two weeks ago and it’s been…a lot. I belong to a “text tree” comprised of local bars that alert each other if the SLA shows up. Last week it seemed like they were bothering someone every night. Thankfully I wasn’t one of the visited establishments but it’s only a matter of time. The news tells us that Cuomo is sending out 400 more cops to make surprise inspections. I can tell you that this only adds to an already off-the-charts stress level.
Tomorrow, they’re finally allowing restaurants to seat people inside at 25% capacity. I won’t be jumping onto that bandwagon for a while; I’ll let everyone else test the waters. And pay the fines that will likely result when their air filters aren’t deemed fancy enough or someone makes the mistake of standing up to go to the bathroom without pulling their mask up first. I gotta say, it is so disappointing that our government is working this diligently to fine us instead of helping us to do what’s best to keep people healthy. Believe me, there’s nothing we all want more than to keep our customers — our friends — alive. It wouldn’t be worth staying in business if we were literally killing people. I guess we’ll see how long it all lasts, what with NYC’s numbers silently crawling up again. I don’t doubt that bars and restaurants will take the blame if we break the 1.5% threshold.
Anyway, I was quoted in yet another article about all this on GrubStreet:
The East Village dive bar Lucky was in the news in August after its liquor license was suspended. Owner Abby Ehmann had been outspoken about her opposition to New York State’s food mandate, which requires that, in order to operate during the COVID pandemic, bars must serve food with all orders. (The SLA has pointed out that bars in New York State have technically been required to serve food since 1964.) She started an online petition to reverse the law on July 27. Her bar was shut down by the State Liquor Authority on August 3 — and critics were quick to draw a line between the timing of those events.
Lucky is open again, but only after Ehmann says she was forced to pay a fine, initially set at $35,000 — an amount that she says is more than her bar has ever made in a single month. (She says her bar once brought in $31,000 one month last summer.) “It was extremely substantial,” Ehmann says of the fine. Although her lawyer, Wylie M. Stecklow, was able to argue the fine down to $10,000, it was still a tremendous amount of money for a small-business owner to pay in the wake of a citywide shutdown. “If I had not applied for back unemployment, I wouldn’t have been able to pay it,” Ehmann explains. “The government put $10,000 into my bank account one day, and the next day I wrote this check to the SLA.”
Ehmann is not alone. The business of selling alcoholic drinks to New Yorkers has transformed dramatically over the past six months, and increasingly, operators say the host of new COVID-related SLA regulations can be difficult to navigate. Furthermore, Hannah Treasure, who works as a server in the West Village, says customers regularly ask to be the exceptions to the rules, frequently trying to order drinks without food. “That’s kind of discouraging,” Treasure says. “You want to put us at risk of losing our liquor license, or getting fined.” In fact, in the the opinion of some operators, it seems that the agency’s inspectors can appear to be more focused on punishing businesses in violation than they are on working with operators to ensure business runs smoothly while everyone remains as safe as possible.
“I think it’s fair to point out that when the governor opened outdoor dining in NYC, that’s what it was,” says SLA spokesperson Bill Crowley. “It wasn’t outdoor bar scene, it wasn’t outdoor drinking. So, sure, I mean, based on CDC guidelines, alcohol served with meals is a lower-risk threshold than simply a bar being open.” When asked about Ehmann’s allegation that the inspection was retaliation for her petition, Crowley responds, “That’s absolutely not true. We conduct probably a thousand details every night in New York City and on Long Island, so that’s the only reason why we were there.”
Over the past few days, the rate of infection in New York City has begun to creep up — there’s been a 43 percent increase in cases over the last two weeks, and the daily positive test rate rose from 1.93 percent yesterday to 3.25 percent today, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio — and the people who spoke to Grub Street for this story all made it clear that they are aware of the danger that comes from loosening restrictions too much. “I’m scared as fuck of COVID,” says the DJ Herbert Holler, who is behind the long-running Freedom Party NYC. “If you’re a venue operator, it’s really hard because on the one hand you’re facing homelessness and starvation or major, major financial duress. But on the other hand, if you’re just going to open and want [the SLA] to be more lenient you could end up killing people.”
Instead, owners say they are confused by the nature of some of the new rules, which do not seem designed for the sake of safety, and some owners expressed concern that the SLA’s fines suggest exploitation of struggling bars to compensate for budget shortfalls. “I get it — the government is broke,” Ehmann says. “But they’re making money off the backs of people who can ill afford it.”
The SLA, for its part, disputes that the COVID rules are informed by anything but safety and containment. “It’s the only reason these rules are being instituted, because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Crowley says. “It’s about getting the coronavirus under control, which New York State has done an incredible job of and is continuing to keep it under control.”
In late August, a group of venues and bars sued the state over a new law that bans ticketed live events, arguing that the rules have been “constantly changing and unworkable,” and that the restriction on advertising specific acts that will play these events is a violation of free speech. “There’s nothing about hearing music that makes coronavirus more likely to jump from one person to the other, right?” says attorney Jonathan Corbett, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the New York chapter of the National Independent Venue Association, a group formed to help venues weather COVID-19, and eight venues across the state including Tralf Music Hall in Buffalo; the Rapids Theater in Niagara Falls; and Birdland Jazz Club, Littlefield, and the Turks Inn in New York City. Corbett has also filed another lawsuit, Columbus Ale House v. Cuomo, arguing against the midnight curfew for restaurants. In the suit, Corbett argues that the state is “regularly fining establishments thousands of dollars at a time for hyper-technical violations that did not exist days earlier,” and that the midnight curfew exists “despite the fact that coronavirus does not behave as a vampire, infecting others only when the moon is out.”
Still others see more alarming trends related to where enforcement is heaviest. State Senator Jessica Ramos — who represents Queens neighborhoods including Corona, Jackson Heights, and Elmhurst — held a press conference on August 19 and rally on September 3 to bring attention to these concerns. “At this point, they’re trying to extract half a million dollars out of my district, which was the epicenter of the epicenter during the pandemic,” she told Grub in August. “I am deathly scared that they are going to use the pandemic as an excuse to advance hyper-gentrification.”
In July, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams spoke at a gathering of minority-owned hospitality businesses, saying, according to newsreports, “I believe this is a well-organized plan of closing down Black and brown businesses because of gentrification.” (The SLA told ABC News at the time that it “has zero-tolerance for discrimination of any kind and only takes action when restaurants or bars break the law or put public health at risk.”)
Steklow, the attorney representing Lucky and its owner, is sympathetic to the difficulties that the current situation presents. “We believe there is a need to protect the city, that the governor and state are acting mostly appropriately,” he says, adding that the state’s representatives with whom he’s dealing “are intelligent, established — they’re not there because they want to be doing something evil like kill small businesses.” Instead, he, like the owners, wants a review of the current rules, and clarity on how and when they’ll be enforced: “I’m not saying, ‘This is insane, why are they doing this?’ We get why it’s happening … I’m just saying the rules all have to make sense, and they don’t all make sense.”
Yesterday the weather called for a hoodie. I ate a bucket of blueberries as my only meal. And I OPENED THE BAR! It was a soft, quiet re-reopening and it was FANTASTIC! Lucky hosted Burning Man Happy Hour and we celebrated Michael Seto’s birthday. The back yard was at capacity (well, once Zero made it immaculate) and everyone who popped by was SO EXCITED to see me open. I am beyond grateful for the heartfelt enthusiasm. Seriously. This whole shitshow has been extremely taxing, both financially AND emotionally, and the only way I’ve gotten through it has been with your love and support.
It wasn’t easy getting my “sea legs” back and serving “food.” I didn’t even have time to change from my “summer” menu. People were gobbling up the pizza bagel bites so maybe they’ll be on the permanent menu. I’ll be experimenting more as the days go by. WARNING: Unless you’d like to come and actually serve your food suggestions, please keep them to yourselves. It’s stressful enough! MANY MANY THANKS to everyone who stopped by! And to the BMHH continigent of Abby’s Pandemic Survival Crew! HUZZAH! I hope to see more of your fabulous, familiar faces in the days to come!
And speaking of connections…I know last night was difficult for many of my friends, feeling so far away from our dusty roots, where friendships were forged with t-stake pounders and PBR. It is a visceral void, felt more acutely because we are feeling it globally yet separately. In my multiverse we are all nursing a well-earned hangover, waking to the smell of coffee and bacon, eager for the first bloody of the day — or mimosa, or coffee and Carolans or frosty cold beer or La Croix — and leaning back in a dusty camp chair as friends stop by to share their tales of adventure. I can’t even write about it without getting weepy. I miss you all like fucking crazy! Next year in the holy land, eh?
I’ve also been weeping with gratitude watching the donations coming in to pay my “Constitutional Warriors,” Wylie Stecklow and Jon Avins. Together we took on the Governor and I’m working to get them some much-deserved cash. Any help would be deeply appreciated. Of course, I’ll gladly buy you a beer Tuesday for a donation today! SO MUCH LOVE to all of you!
Senator Jessica Ramos returned to the New York State Liquor Authority’s (SLA) headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 3, to call for the agency to restore all the liquor licenses it has removed from New York City restaurants and bars as well as drop all suspensions.
“The way to help these small businesses is not by suspending their license and closing them down,” said Ramos. “The way to help the businesses is to provide clear guidance so that we can help them comply if there’s any confusion, so that they can continue operating and they can continue providing us with good food, entertainment and, more importantly, good jobs for our communities.”
Ramos — who along with two dozen state senators wrote a letter demanding SLA stop hitting businesses with “excessive fines” last week — was joined by Uptown Manhattan Assembly member Carmen De La Rosa, Jackson Heights Assembly candidate Jessica González-Rojas and several local restaurant and bar owners.
Two weeks ago, Ramos led another press conference at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building with more than 30 Queens and Manhattan business owners to speak out against what they say has been harassment from the SLA in the months when eateries were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining.
The SLA has filed 708 charges for liquor license removals against establishments in NYC, 207 (or 29 percent) of which are in Queens, as of Friday, Sept. 4. Manhattan accounts for half of the charges, according to the SLA.
The agency has also filed 168 Emergency Summary Suspensions, which are imposed when the SLA finds the continued operation of a licensed business threatens public health and safety.
Businesses that are subjected to an emergency suspension are entitled to an expedited hearing before an SLA Administrative Law Judge.
SLA spokesperson William Crowley told QNS the suspensions are “used sparingly, and only in the worst cases — that’s why 50,000 inspections have led to under 1,000 charges and just 168 suspensions.”
But De La Rosa, who represents Washington Heights, said restaurant and bar owners in certain communities are receiving “targeted enforcement” from the SLA.
“Why are they targeting our businesses? Because they serve communities of color, because they serve vulnerable communities, under the guise of safety,” De La Rosa said. “We visited many establishments in Upper Manhattan, and these businesses are trying their very best every single day to not only serve their communities, many of them never closed their doors during a global pandemic. Let’s talk about essential workers. These people were part of food delivery operations, of mutual aid operations when our communities were dying. They are trying to survive. This is not about safety, this is about revenue.”
González-Rojas, who won the primary race for Assembly District 34, said her district’s majority-immigrant owned businesses “are suffering from the burden” of SLA fines.
“We are in the district that was deeply impacted by COVID,” González-Rojas said. “There’s a restaurant down the street from my home, I live right off Northern Boulevard, and I witnessed it getting shut down for days due to fines. I witness another restaurant get a $1,500 fine without any proof — and when they ask for proof they got a grainy photo that shows nothing. This is unjust.”
Ramos said about 31 businesses in her district have experienced “harassment and threats by undercover agents, members of a task force, the state sheriffs, and the Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection.”
Kae Burke and Anya Sapozhnikova, co-founders of Brooklyn’s House of Yes, a nightclub and arts space, were there to talk about their liquor license suspension a week ago. They said they were given a list from SLA on what to improve.
“We did make the changes, we did try to rectify the situation, and they still suspended our license,” said Burke. “That is not justice; it’s not helpful. That does not keep our communities safe. All that does is destroy a business that was completely compliant with all of the guidelines. It’s heartbreaking to see our friends all of a sudden, surprise, unemployed again.”
Abby Ehmann, owner of Lucky, a bar on the East Village, said she recently got her liquor license suspended shortly after she started a petition, “Seating Not Eating,” calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reverse his Executive Order mandating restaurant and bars have to serve food item with alcoholic beverage. The petition has surpassed 5,000 signatures.
Ehmann’s lawyer, Wylie Stecklow, argues that while Cuomo’s executive orders have effectively slowed the spread, they are not always easy to understand or enforce.
“Even before COVID, they were looked at by the Department of Health, Department of Buildings, the Fire Department, as well as the State Liquor Authority. These businesses know they have to comply with a myriad of rules and regulations that are hard to understand,” said Stecklow. “Executive Order 202.52, it is so undistinguishable, it does not define itself, that the The SLA has set up 10 question and answers on their own website trying to explain what this one small executive order means.”
President of the New York State Latino Restaurant and Bar Association Jeffrey Garcia joined many businesses and elected officials across the city in calling for a clear path for NYC to bring back indoor dining.
“Our restaurants know they should be wearing masks, cleaning tables and following all these rules, but there are a lot of things in place that’s a hindrance as well,” said Garcia. “Like the rule that business have to control what’s going on 100 feet from their businesses — they’re not cops. Just trying to control people inside your businesses is difficult enough during these very difficult times, because even customers, even though we’ve been dealing with this for months, are not always used to putting on a mask right away. Yet an investigator can walk in as a person’s walking to the bathroom, and you lose your license over a free mask? It’s just not fair.”
Ramos agrees that indoor dining should come back, saying that as a mother of two, she’s more worried about what in-person school protocols will look like in the fall.
“We’re going to be allowing a third of the student population to go into schools with little to no protocols,” she said. “I do not subscribe to these concerns about indoor dining when we are being hypocrites in New York state and allowing everybody but New York City to reopen at a small capacity and now we’re behind New Jersey as well.”
Ramos and Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Chinatown, previously called for better outreach and for guidance to be given to business owners in several different languages.
“As of yet, the SLA has been unable to provide clear guidance in one place as to what rules and protocols our restaurants must follow,” said Ramos. “None of this information is available in any language other than English. The SLA is still deputizing state employees from other agencies who are not trained in liquor authority law and are not culturally competent … because they don’t live in our neighborhoods and understand our communities.”
Suspended licenses may cost business owners anywhere from $4,000 to $50,000, depending on “egregiousness of the conduct.” The maximum penalty the SLA could hand down is revoking a liquor license.
For first time Executive Order violations involving less egregious conduct, the SLA generally accepts fines anywhere from $1,500 and $4,000, with the maximum being $10,000 per charge.
Ramos added that it is not clear where the fines that SLA collects are going.
Crowley maintains the SLA and Cuomo’s task force for a safe reopening are acting in order keep the public safe during the pandemic. He said thanks to the task force and responsible business owners, the SLA is seeing a 97 percent compliance rate.
He noted all fines, in addition to all licensing revenue collected by the SLA, are remitted to the state’s General Fund — the major operating fund for the state, which provides funding for schools, healthcare and other services.
“The SLA has had uniform standards for bars and restaurants from day one — posted publicly on our website — and they have been on the books for months,” Crowley stated. “Let’s be clear: we only suspend licenses in the most egregious cases of non-compliance, which is why nearly 50,000 inspections have led to just 168 suspensions. […] We will continue to take a smart approach to compliance — working with businesses that truly want to keep New Yorkers safe, while taking strong action against the small number who willfully violate coronavirus-related regulations, placing both lives and New York’s re-opening at risk.”
But Ramos said the task force, which has SLA, the sheriff’s office and other state agencies involved, doesn’t seem to have anyone “explicitly in charge that can say how these inspections are being carried out in order to provide clarity” for the protocols required of restaurants.
“We’ve been given the time to rethink and re-design the way we do many things,” said Ramos. “How we help our small businesses needs to be a priority. We should be encouraging more New Yorkers to open small businesses and provide them with the support they need to keep them open. We need more New Yorkers to create, to be entrepreneurs, to be able to help and provide jobs for their fellow New Yorkers.”
I woke up to this piece. So much for keeping a “low profile” after the filing of the lawsuit!
Manhattan bar owner who started petition against food-with-drinks requirement sues Cuomo after her liquor license suspended
An East Village bar owner who spoke out against a state requirement that food be served with drinks during the COVID-19 pandemic — then got shut down for flouting the rule — is suing Gov. Cuomo.
Abby Ehmann, 61, operated Lucky Bar when she started the “Seating Not Eating” petition in July, claiming Cuomo’s mandate placed an “onerous burden” on establishments that don’t normally serve grub.
Less than a week after Ehmann was interviewed by the Daily News about the petition, State Liquor Authority investigators showed up to check if Lucky Bar was in compliance, though there weren’t checks at other nearby bars, according to the lawsuit.
Targeting Ehmann’s establishment after she created her petition and spoke with the media was retaliatory, the suit claims.
“In times when unusual measures are needed, we have to be extra vigilant to make sure that even a well-meaning government does not act arbitrarily.” said Ehmann’s lawyer, Jon Avins.
Investigators who visited the bar Aug. 3 cited Ehmann for serving alcohol without accompanying food, according to the lawsuit. The next day, her liquor license was suspended.
On Sunday, Christopher Hardwick and I co-hosted the Renegade Mermaid Parade. It was a wonderful afternoon of costumery! And we got loads of press. Apparently, unbridled joy and creativity is in short supply these days!
I posted this last night, after a few very delicious fancy cocktail at a friend’s. I wish there were some way to completely turn off all politics until November 4. Sigh.
If dumpf had just named Charles Manson’s fucking zombie corpse as his running mate with some other more horrible than I can’t come up with alive person as his puppet master, the right would be falling all over themselves with praise? Us? We’re, what, three hours in and already hating on Kamala and everything either of them have ever done or felt or voted on that got your panties in a bunch and boohoofuckinghoo and this is why we’re gonna end up with another four year of this imbicile. Feel free to “snooze” me cause that’ll sure fix things. Holy fuck we’re all gonna die.