SCHENECTADY — Tom Cotugno bought BL’s Tavern last year and reopened the venue in the city’s Stockade neighborhood on March 11.
That was the same day President Donald Trump addressed the nation about the mounting coronavirus pandemic and the NBA canceled its season.
Days later, Cotugno was forced to shut down as a result of state orders implemented to stave off the coronavirus.
“I was open six days,” Cotugno said.
Through the dark days of April, BL’s survived by offering take-out.
Prospects brightened over the spring as lockdown restrictions were lifted and infections statewide plummeted.
But five months into the pandemic, the constantly- morphing state directives governing bars and taverns have Cotugno and his fellow neighborhood tavern operators rattled.
Key among the new rules is the edict that all drinks must now be served with food, which BL’s fulfills by offering patrons a basic-issue pepperoni and cheese platter for $6 (which can be customized based on customer preference).
BL’s has a full-service kitchen, which means the platter isn’t the only option. But not all patrons want food with their suds, a measure Cotugno fears will repel customers.
“As bar owners, we’ve been hurting for three months and now this?” Cotugno said. “Something like this is just twisting the dagger.”
Interviews with a half-dozen local tavern owners on Wednesday reveal while all are broadly supportive of the state’s directives to safeguard public health, including requiring staff and patrons to wear masks and socially distance, the shifting rules can be vexing, particularly when it comes to what constitutes food.
Case in point:
Just days after requiring all drink sales to be accompanied by food, the state Liquor Authority revised its directive.
The sale of token items like chips and pretzels to meet the requirement is now prohibited.
While short-lived, the order prompted creative solutions from local businesses, including a $1 bag of “Cuomo Chips” offered by Harvey’s Bar & Restaurant in Saratoga Springs, a move that gained national attention, including an appearance on Fox & Friends on Tuesday.
“It’s our livelihood. It’s our liquor license. It’s everything to us,” said co-owner Adam Humphrey.
Without referencing any venue in particular, SLA took a dim view:
“As a restaurant and bar owner interested in continuing to assist in our shared public health goal, you should not be looking for ways to circumvent the dining or meal requirement nor the purpose behind it,” wrote the SLA in a Q&A explaining the revisions, “as it jeopardizes the public health and the progress all New Yorkers have made.”
Under the guidelines, food items must be “substantial,” which means no nuts and candy.
Bars are also prohibited from contracting with third-party businesses or food trucks and “should not provide food that is shared among parties.”
While the restrictions implemented last Thursday initially barred patrons from directly ordering drinks at counters, venues without pre-existing table service can continue to use the counter for walk-up ordering.
And while every drink refill doesn’t need to be accompanied by a new food order, menu items must be “sufficient in substance” and also in a quantity to serve the number of patrons who are present.
As the climate shifts, unexpected consequences are emerging.
Like Harvey’s, Rookie’s Sports Bar & Grill in Schenectady rolled out limited dollar offerings with a cheeky name.
But patrons of the Van Vranken Avenue venue ultimately opted for the “smorgasbord of finger foods” instead of ordering from the regular menu, said owner Sue Rivette.
As a result, the Northside bar may scrap the menu next week in favor of a new strategy.
“We’re dying a slow death,” Rivette said.
As the virus surges throughout the U.S., Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the safeguards are critical in keeping the virus at bay in New York, where on Wednesday,the positive infection rate was 1.04 percent and hospitalizations are at the lowest numbers since mid-March.
Large groups of young people congregating at bars are one of two major threats jeopardizing progress in New York state, Cuomo said.
The other is travelers from states where the virus is surging. Visitors from 31 states are now required to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival.
“I suspect our infection rate is going to go back up because of people coming into New York,” Cuomo said on Wednesday in an MSNBC appearance.
With caseloads low and contained, Rivette thought bars by now would be allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity as well as open pool tables and dartboards.
And while she acknowledges the state intended food to be an anchor to prevent bar patrons from mingling, “it’s not going to work out that way,” she said.
Katie O’Byrnes is also preparing to launch a scaled-down appetizer menu, which includes finger foods like wings and nachos in the $4 to $6 price range.
Owner John Keller acknowledged the directive has led to a decline in business, leading to mounting fears as the bar looks to upcoming the baseball season and horse racing to shore up visitation during a particularly fragile time.
Keller was mindful of patrons who will attempt to skirt the directive.
“We’re not going to let a table of eight take up a table with a $4 spend,” Keller said.
And bars without kitchens aren’t completely in the lurch: They can simply use microwaves as long as they keep food on hand, including items like Hot Pockets.
“That meets SLA standards,” said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association.
The association is supportive of elements designed to keep the public safe and applauded enforcement actions this week against a handful of New York City venues after videos emerged on social media of large crowds.
But Wexler raised an eyebrow at the shifting food provisions.
“We thought the rules in general made sense, but went further than they needed to go,” said Wexler, who also pointed at perceived ambiguities.
While bars and taverns are banned from selling chips, for example, there is no such restriction for tasting rooms at wineries, breweries and distilleries, he said, while private clubs have no food requirement at all.
As such, Wexler believes patrons of neighborhood bars will ultimately find the new restrictions too cumbersome and make a beeline to fraternal organizations like Lions, Elks and VFW halls, where entry can be gained by just knowing a member.
FEARS LOOM LARGE
Penalties for non-complaint bars are not abstract:
Venues with “three strikes” could face revocation of their licenses, while the most “egregious” offenders could have them pulled immediately, according to state directives.
With only 30 investigators, the SLA lacks the resources to fan out across the state to respond to complaints, said Cuomo, who encouraged local governments to step up enforcement efforts.
Credible tips lodged through the state’s website or hotline will be forwarded to county public health departments, who may tip off the SLA as an “ultimate sanction.”
“We cannot do this level of enforcement without local governments and local police departments,” Cuomo said on Monday.
For local tavern owners, the fear of SLA penalties looms large and despite doing all the right things, Rivette remains wary.
She put in a call to the state agency recently to ask about guidance.
After being put on hold, instead of music, Rivette was met with a pre-recorded announcement directing callers to where they can file complaints county-by-county.
“I almost wish they didn’t let us open at all,” Rivette said.
Officials in Schenectady, Saratoga and Fulton counties have said they are taking an “educate first” policy before contacting the SLA and pursuing enforcement action.
But the fear of sanctions weighs on tavern owners. And for every bar owner willing to talk to a reporter on Wednesday, just as many declined.
“We just want to fly under the radar,” said one staffer at a suburban pub, who declined to comment because she wasn’t authorized to do so. “There are so many rules and regulations.”
Like other venues, Saw Mill Tavern in Schenectady’s Little Italy was scrambling to comply, offering grilled hot dogs and other menu options.
“We’re doing what we have to do in order to meet the rules set by Gov. Cuomo to operate,” said manager Ellie Smith.
Patrons sat six feet apart on Wednesday afternoon as the sky threatened rain, including a man picking at a plate of nachos.
“How is this supposed to keep us safe?” he said.