Schenectady bar owners fear latest COVID restrictions may prove to be last call

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERJay Street Pub owner Mitchell Ramsey is pictured on Friday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Jay Street Pub owner Mitchell Ramsey is pictured on Friday.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Six days.

That’s how long Pinhead Susan’s was open before the new state restrictions on businesses and social events were announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday.

The Irish-themed venue in downtown Schenectady had just reopened after being closed throughout the pandemic.

With the fresh coats of varnish barely dry and fridges freshly stocked, the jubilation has curdled into disappointment as the venue prepares to adhere to the 10 p.m. curfew on restaurants, bars and gyms that goes into effect on Friday.

“I should have just stayed closed,” said owner Hamayun “Joey” Faizy, who sank $60,000 into renovations and hired 26 staffers.

Now he fears he will have to lay them off.

Cuomo announced the restrictions, which also include a 10-person cap on private gatherings, as the virus surges across the country.

Venues must scoot customers out the door by 10 p.m. but the kitchens can remain open for delivery and takeout.

The governor said more restrictions may be forthcoming if measures don’t slow the spread of the virus.

“We believe we are going to have to be taking additional steps,” Cuomo said on Friday, noting he’d huddle with governors of neighboring states to discuss possible measures.

The mood on Friday was dour at a half-dozen bars.

Jay Street Pub owner Mitch Ramsey stopped short of saying if the closure would break his business, but lamented the crackdown.

“We’ve been put on this sinking ship and all I have is much respect for every bar owner out there that is going down with the vessel as we are ourselves,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey has complied with state regulations as they’ve shifted throughout the year, including adhering to the requirement that drinks must be served with food and putting up an outdoor tent to keep people socially distanced.

And when numerous venues have been cited by the state Liquor Authority for violating social distancing regulations, Ramsey has hired a pair of licensed private security guards to keep a watchful eye over patrons.

Yet all of those measures come with additional costs.

Ramsey said the federal government needs to provide relief for businesses affected by the crackdown and ongoing uncertainty, sentiments echoed by Zen Asian Fusion Lounge owner Andy Zheng.

“If this gets any worse, we’re all gonna be outta business,” Zheng said.

Faizy also called for compensation.

“How are we going to pay our bills?”

The state on Friday reported that 2.65 percent of tests were positive, and 1,737 hospitalizations.

Twenty-four people died on Thursday.

Bar owners acknowledged the need for the restrictions, but several faulted the SLA for not announcing their presence during inspections and instead penalizing them afterward.

“They need to have better communication with bar owners,” Faizy said.

Wolff’s Biergarten in Schenectady recently reopened after a brief closure this summer after being cited by the state agency.

“It is confusing the SLA doesn’t give businesses the courtesy of citing us while they are at the bar while the violations are happening,” owner Matt Baumgartner said after being cited in September. “This would give bar owners an opportunity to correct the ‘COVID-spreading behavior’ immediately.”

The SLA pushed back against criticisms.

“We are eight months into this deadly pandemic, and rather than complaining about undisclosed inspections — which are routine in law enforcement and were used before the pandemic — these owners should focus on keeping New Yorkers safe,” said William Crowley, an SLA spokesperson. “The SLA will continue to take a smart approach to compliance, working with businesses that truly want protect public health while taking strong action against the small number who willfully violate COVID regulations and put lives at risk.”

The state agency uses both undisclosed and disclosed inspections, Crowley said. During disclosed inspections, violations are highlighted for the owner or manager in real time.

With undisclosed inspections, inspectors call the establishment immediately following the inspection to inform them of violations so they can be corrected.

“The SLA has had uniform standards for bars and restaurants from day one — posted publicly on our website and well publicized in the media.

Bad actors place both New Yorkers’ health and our continued economic recovery at risk, and we will hold the small number of licensees who are violating these rules accountable so the vast majority who are following the rules can remain open.”

Despite the grim moods as bar owners prepared for the crackdown, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation doesn’t think restrictions will dramatically affect the downtown landscape.

“I honestly don’t see it as having a wholesale impact in downtown overall,” said Jim Salengo, executive director.

That’s not to minimize the severity of their challenges, he said, but rather because there is not a large number of venues that would be affected.

DSIC is doing its part to keep focus on small businesses by boosting promotions, Salengo said, including Restaurant Appreciation Week, which begins Monday.

Despite the grim outlook, Faizy said the silver lining is that the pandemic has brought the embattled industry closer together, sharing things like ice and offering emotional support.

“We’re not competition,” he said. “Let’s just get along. It brought the bar owners closer together than ever.”

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