When New York state allowed bowling alleys to reopen at 50 percent capacity in August, provided they require face coverings and social distancing, business owner Tim Berlin figured the reopening of billiard halls would not be far behind.
Five months later, he’s still waiting for the state to issue coronavirus pandemic safety guidelines for how to reopen billiard halls and he can’t reopen his downtown Amsterdam business — Sharpshooters Billiards & Sports Pub — until that happens.
“They’ve just overlooked us,” Berlin said. “We thought we were going to be in Phase 3 or 4, worst case, along with bowling alleys, and then bowling alleys were allowed to reopen, and we still weren’t allowed to reopen, and now, basically, there’s really not that much left that’s not reopened in some capacity, so it’s very frustrating.”
On Jan. 15, New York State Supreme Court Justice Gerard Neri issued a ruling providing preliminary injunction relief that allowed 16 billiard halls to reopen following the state’s phase four rules for indoor entertainment.
The ruling came in the case of a lawsuit filed by 370 Brewerton Road LLC, doing-business-as Brick House Billiards and Restaurant, against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York state. The final outcome of the civil lawsuit has not yet been decided, but Neri’s ruling allows Brick House Billiards and the 15 other billiard halls who’ve joined the lawsuit to operate at 50 percent capacity with the same social distancing requirements as bowling alleys or casinos, at least for now.
But Berlin said the ruling only applies to billiard halls that have joined the lawsuit, and he doesn’t know if he wants to spend the money to do that.
“The ruling was based on the 14th Amendment, which I was like ‘Wow, don’t I have the 14th Amendment too?’” he said. “I reached out to the attorney that was handling that, and he said he would take additional people on board, for a fee, but there were no guarantees, because they have to have a hearing. He said he thought the judge would allow additional people into the suit, but there was an upfront fee, and there would probably be another fee. Too many questions, I didn’t feel comfortable joining. It might have been throwing money at the wall wondering if it would stick.”
Berlin said he’s owned Sharpshooters for about 10 years. He said the business has 14 pool tables and relies heavily on customer traffic from billiard league games five nights a week and big billiard tournaments in February and April.
The other major component of his business at Sharpshooters is live music. He said on a typical Friday night with a band playing he might have 300 people at the business.
Sharpshooters has been closed since last March 18 when Cuomo first imposed COVID-19 restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
Berlin said on June 18 he was able to partially reopen his other business — Trick Shot Billiard Hall & Wicked Eatery, Pub & Entertainment in Halfmoon, which he’s owned for 27 years — but only because the restaurant portion of the business has outdoor dining.
“Especially, when there was only outside dining, we were able to hold our own there, where at Sharpshooters I really didn’t have that,” he said.
Berlin estimates he’s lost about $500,000 worth of revenue since he closed Sharpshooters. He said on a typical Friday night in February he might have a total of seven employees between waitstaff, cooks and security, and if the business had a live band there could be as many as 300 people at the location, but without billiards and with capacity restrictions still in place, he cant justify reopening.
“You can have indoor music now, everybody has to be seated, but because the sports pub is kind of smaller at Sharpshooters, if you shrink down the capacity to 50 percent it’s hard to afford a band when you’re only at 50 percent,” he said. “People have to eat and drink to accumulate enough for it to make sense of paying the band and still make money, which is hard.”
Berlin said in September he tried submitting a letter to Cuomo with 8,000 signatures and his proposal for guidelines for how to reopen safely, but he received no response.
State Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Republican who represents the 43rd State Senate District which includes Berlin’s business in Halfmoon, has been trying to get the billiard hall prohibition removed.
On Oct. 1, Jordan wrote Cuomo asking that Empire State Development be directed to implement a plan to facilitate the safe reopening of billiard halls.
“Much like bowling alleys, billiard halls have made cleanliness and proper social distancing top priorities,” Jordan said in a released statement. “These vital small businesses are ready, able, and want to reopen, and are 100 percent committed to doing so safely for their patrons and employees. I’m asking the Governor to consider the recent State Supreme Court decision and allow for billiard halls to finally reopen statewide as they have been requesting since last summer. We cannot afford to see even more small businesses close and more jobs lost all because the state failed to act.”
Joshua Fitzpatrick, Jordan’s chief of staff, said the senator had two phone calls with officials at Empire State Development officials this past week, but still has received no answer on billiard halls.
“ESD basically mentioned to the Senator, during their phone call, that the governor and his team have not responded to ESD either on this issue,” Fitzpatrick stated in a text message.
Jordan and Berlin both argue billiards are at least as safe as bowling in terms of spreading COVID-19.
“In many venues, patrons will be provided their own sanitized billiard balls and cue sticks to use and will be directed to go to an assigned sanitized table,” Jordan said in her letter to Cuomo. “Billiard halls also can provide a unique, socially distanced, safe experience for patrons as they are specifically centered around reserved table spaces and times. Groups stay at their assigned table rather than coming and going from their table to other social spaces within the business.”
Berlin said he just wishes the state would provide him a reason for why billiards continue to be prohibited.
“Why can’t we be open? Give us an explanation or a reason to justify it — just tell us why,” he said.
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