SCHENECTADY — Wolff’s Biergarten on Erie Boulevard had its liquor license temporarily suspended on Friday for violations of state rules intended to control the possible spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The State Liquor Authority voted to suspend the license after a staff attorney reported that on Thursday night SLA investigators conducting an undisclosed visit to Wolff’s found a staff member not wearing a mask, patrons crowded at the bar, and patrons not being required to order food when they purchased drinks, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive orders require.
The attorney, Kayla O’Donnell, said patrons were “elbow to elbow the entire length of the bar,” not observing social distancing, and cited the mask and food-ordering violations. People were standing or walking while drinking without wearing face masks, she said, and at least one employee behind the bar was working without a mask. Violations were observed both indoors and on a licensed outdoor patio, she said.
The violations “puts the health, safety and welfare of the patrons, employees, their families and the entire community in danger of catching and spreading COVID-19,” O’Donnell said.
There are Wolff’s Biergarten locations in Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Syracuse. The suspension only applies to the Schenectady location, but the SLA noted that owner Matt Baumgartner had been warned earlier about possible violations at the Albany location, providing further grounds for action against the Schenectady location.
“It’s clear that this licensed premise is blatantly ignoring the governor’s executive orders, based on evidence presented,” SLA Commissioner Lily Fan said during the meeting.
Wolff’s is popular. It opened the Erie Boulevard location in 2014, and the investment was seen as part of the city’s downtown revitalization. O’Donnell said the location has only one other recorded infraction, a sale of alcohol to a minor in 2017.
While bars were initially closed entirely in response to the pandemic, they were allowed to re-open in mid-June with social distancing and food service restrictions. Wolff’s initially re-opened, but then closed in early July, with Baumgarter saying operating was not safe, given virus concerns. The business re-opened in early August.
Baumgartner, in a letter on Saturday, said he doesn’t dispute the charges, but he was surprised, given that one of his most trusted bartenders was working. He said he was not there, but he noted those working were not given a warning by investigators to change behavior at the time.
“To suspend our liquor license implies that we are running a bar that is flagrantly and constantly violating the rules. We are not,” he wrote. “We were told there is a three-strike rule. There is not. To close down a small business because of one bartender’s error on a singular night feels unfair to me.”
Baumgartner said he has reached out to all his managers to emphasize the importance of following the rules. “It is exhausting to try to enforce all of these new, constantly changing rules, particularly while people are consuming alcohol,” he wrote. “It’s really not easy. But I will try harder.”
Bars and restaurants across the state have struggled to stay within the governor’s guidelines, with temporary license suspensions occurring on a regular basis, especially in New York City and on Long Island.