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.”
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!
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!
Over the past few days since the bar closed, I’ve received a number of emails and messages along the lines of “I was planning on stopping by Lucky to see you.” Huh. That sure didn’t work out as planned. All I could think was, well, where were you last week? Last year? Not in a bitchy, complainy way but in a way that, given today’s uncertain circumstances, highlights that maybe it would be a good idea not to put off the things you’ve been thinking about doing. The people you’ve talked about seeing. The stuff you’ve been planning on getting around to…sometime in the not-so-certain future.
I’ve never been a big fan of the whole “carpe diem” thing (or YOLO, for that matter). I’m a bit more pragmatic in my day to day workings. But these days? All bets are off. Every day could be our last. I’m out in the Hamptons right now, hanging with my family before they head back west. My mom is 84. She has COPD and survived three different cancers. I am lucky she’s still alive. To say she is in a high-risk group would be an understatement. So I want to spend whatever time I can with her. Because who knows?
I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator. Yeah, tomorrow. I tell myself “I’m too busy,” even when I’m on the couch watching Law & Order reruns. “I’ll get to it.” I don’t have much on my bucket list but I do have a million things I really should accomplish. As shallow as it sounds, I own a lot of cute clothes I haven’t worn yet because I’m saving them for a special day. What, exactly, constitutes a special day? What am I waiting for? I’ve recently been forcing myself to pull off those prices tags and “dress up” even if it’s only a regular, not-so-special day. This whole pandemic has had me looking at my belongings and thinking, “What will happen to all my shit when I die?” I don’t want anyone going through my closets and asking, “Why didn’t she ever wear this?”
It may not be so weird to confront one’s mortality at 61. But people far younger have been dropping dead from this virus. Sure, some over 100 have survived. And a million people fall in between, age- and death-wise, sickness- and long-term suffering-wise. If life wasn’t already a crap shoot, it’s become more of a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride meets Coney Island’s Shoot the Freak. So I’m going to eat the thing, drink the thing, fuck the thing, and tell everyone I love them. Of course, those of my everyones who are still speaking to me. And lemme tell you, there are fewer and fewer as the days go by. Because while I feel like I’m desperately gripping on to everything I have like I may lose it any minute, there are many others who have literally closed themselves off from people who love them. I just don’t get it. The meanness I’ve witnessed while we are all losing our marbles has been additionally disheartening. I guess it’s a coping mechanism but it makes me sad.
So today I’m gonna spend time with my mom. We’re gonna drink Bud Light and do the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle and try and solve the problems of the world. I’m going to savor the days I have with her. Because soon she flies back to California, where their numbers are up and, even though her social contacts are insanely limited, the chances are statistically higher of her contracting COVID. Carpe motherfucking diem, my friends.
I feel ya, Michelle. It seems like I’ve been robbed of just about everything that brings me joy. Nothing to dress up for. Nothing to costume for. Nothing to plan for or look forward to. No work, now. And I can’t socialize with most of my friends. Thank heavens for the very, very few things I have left…
“You know, I fought to continue to find a way to stay connected to the people in my life who bring me joy, and my girlfriends, my husband, my kids; it’s the small things … because you have to recognize that you’re in a place, a bad place, in order to get out of it.”
Gooooooood morning! It’s going to be meltingly hot today AGAIN! I’m pretty excited to say that my little petition has over 700 signatures! I’m in the Daily News. And Jennie-jo heard them talking about it all on 1010Wins this morning! I guess I should be ready for a visit from Governor Cuomo! GULP!
If you haven’t already seen this, here’s a depressing list of all the bars and restaurants that have closed forever since the beginning of the pandemic. If you don’t want that to happen to YOUR favorite place, sign the petition! I don’t want Lucky to wind up on this list, which is why I wrote the petition. And it’s why I’m braving visits from the task forces and the possible loss of my liquor license. (They ALWAYS manage to find things to fine you for…so who knows?) Sign it if, for no other reason, you fancy yourself a supporter of the underdog! We’re not going down without a fight!
And if you’d like to see firsthand how the whole “you need to have your ass in a seat” rule actually works, stop by Lucky this evening for Burning Man Happy Hour. It’s usually a fairly small group. They understand weighing risks. And they are able to grasp compliance for the greater good. Wear your mask while you order or otherwise find yourself INSIDE (on your way to the restroom, for instance, since those are the only two reasons you CAN be inside)! ACK!