Schenectady

Long closed bars in Schenectady and elsewhere prime for COVID-19 reopening — warily

Violations can fetch up to $10,000 in fines
JP Maloney, owner of Katie O’Byrnes on Erie Boulevard prepares for re opening Tuesday
PHOTOGRAPHER:
JP Maloney, owner of Katie O’Byrnes on Erie Boulevard prepares for re opening Tuesday

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Bottom’s up — cautiously.

Following three months of dark interiors and dusty taprooms, bars are prepared to welcome back suds-thirsty crowds on Wednesday, scrubbing interiors, fine-tuning outside seating arrangements and inspecting long-dormant equipment.

Owners are cautiously optimistic.

City Squire will confine service to a parking lot patio for several weeks before allowing customers indoors.

“We’re a little apprehensive, but I think everyone is,” said City Square owner Christine Lecce.

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As the Capital Region enters Phase 3 of the reopening process, the state is imposing capacity limits to prevent transmission of the virus, and the rollout provides a test of balancing public safety with allowing financially-wounded businesses to generate revenue that abruptly vanished overnight.

“It’s been brutal,” said J.P. Maloney, owner of pub Katie O’Byrne’s in Schenectady. He said that during the pandemic his business has dropped to between 20 and 25 percent of what he would normally get.

Maloney passed the time, in part, by installing a new floor and refinishing the tables. 

Many venues have adapted to selling drinks to-go. But that option was only permissible with food orders, leaving those without kitchens in the lurch.

Statewide, hospitalizations and deaths are at a three-month low in the state. But infections and hospitalizations are spiking elsewhere in the U.S. as states reopen, including Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott pinned the spike on young people flouting safeguards.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned an increase will lead to the state to pause its phased-in reopening approach.

“As we sit here today, 21 states are seeing an increase,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “Why? They reopened quickly. They did not have the same phases; they did not have the same controls. They are seeing the number of cases go up.”

Cuomo said the state has received 25,000 complaints of bars and restaurants violating social distancing rules, mostly in the New York City and Long Island areas, prompting him to chastise crowds and personally call several business owners.

Restaurants in the Capital Region also will be allowed to open Wednesday under the same guidelines.

Capacity must be limited to 50 percent of maximum occupancy. Seating in bar areas and communal tables is only permitted if at least 6 feet can be maintained between parties, and guests must wear masks at all times when not seated.

Patrons seated at the same table must be members of the same party with a maximum of 10 people per table.

“We’re going to do our best to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Lecce said. “We’re going to be cautious and follow restrictions.”

Ambition Cafe, too, will strictly enforce requirements, where owner Marc Renson anticipates stir-crazy patrons will quickly rush back.

“I think people are going to charge,” he said. “They’re already charging, and I don’t like what I see at other nighttime establishments.”

Outdoor dining has been permitted for the past two weeks in the Capital Region, and many restaurant  patios in the city have been bustling, including venues which have received special outdoor permits from the city.

Cuomo has placed enforcement squarely on the backs of local government officials.

Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman said while the county investigates complaints submitted through the state website, officials opt instead to first educate violators before levying fines or taking formal action.

But when it comes to taking an active role in monitoring for compliance specifically for restaurants and bars, the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department will play a supporting role to local law enforcement agencies, Fluman said.

City police didn’t respond for comment on Tuesday.

But Mayor Gary McCarthy said he hoped businesses and patrons would voluntarily comply. He said he would evaluate reports of violations on a case-by-case basis.

While his office has received some complaints, those stemmed from more of a lack of clarity.

“Some people saw things they thought violated the criteria, when in fact it didn’t necessarily violate the rules,” McCarthy said.

Similarly, Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly hoped businesses would self-comply.

“Right now, we’re looking to support our local businesses and the enforcement side has yet to come,” Kelly said.

Industry groups are working with bars and restaurants to ensure they’re up to date on the latest directives.

And they’re also stressing that the state Liquor Authority (SLA) is watching.

“The SLA is breaking their backs to help people out,” said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association. “They’re also writing tickets to those who violate the rules.”

State regulators have cited 10 licensed retailers in the Capital Region, including one emergency suspension issued for Hudson River Brewing in Hudson, Columbia County.

Among those cited are Mario’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in Niskayuna, Jonathan’s Pizza & Italian Cuisine in Duanesburg, River Road House in Schenectady and Dozer’s Bar & Grill in Ballston Spa.

“SLA investigators are responding to complaints, conducting routine compliance checks and working closely with local governments and police departments across the state, who have the primary responsibility for enforcing the law,” said William Crowley, an SLA spokesperson.

Businesses found flouting the order could see their license suspended or permanently revoked, with fines up to $10,000 per violation.

But beyond the risk of violations, tavern owners clearly understand a lapse in protocol will result in a setback to reopening, Wexler said.

“We’ve done everything by the book and we’re not risking anything,” said Maloney, the Katie O’Byrne’s owner. “It’s been very difficult, but we’re going to survive.”

For some, while the past three months have been financially devastating, the green light to reopen does not mean they will immediately do so.

Pinhead Susan’s has only convinced two employees to return to work, prompting management to delay reopening until it can recruit enough staff.

Owner Hamayun “Joey” Faizy pointed at state and federal benefits packages that can see some laid-off workers collecting up to $1,100 per week until at least July 31.

“What’s the incentive for them to come back to work?” he asked.

Like Maloney, Faizy has used the downtime to engage in internal renovations, including painting an Irish flag on the ceiling of the pub.

“It’s the only thing we could do,” he said.

Correction 9:01 a.m. 6/17: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the owner of the City Squire. The owner is Christine Lecce.

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