Famed 140-year-old West Village bar White Horse Tavern — known for counting big-name artists including Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison, and Bob Dylan among its regulars over the years — has had its liquor license suspended after repeatedly violating NYC’s social distancing guidelines over the past month.
New York State’s Liquor Authority issued the emergency suspension on July 8, after the SLA and the NYPD spent weeks monitoring crowds at the bar and giving warnings to the bar’s owner Eytan Sugarman. The suspension marks the first time that an NYC restaurant or bar has been penalized in this manner for violating the city’s social distancing measures since outdoor dining began, according to an SLA spokesperson. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has previously threatened to suspend NYC liquor licenses for social distancing violators ahead of the city’s launch of outdoor dining.
The longstanding bar has temporarily shut down until further notice while the suspension is in effect.
According to the SLA, the organization sent an undercover investigator to the bar in mid-June and the official was able to purchase alcohol without food for takeout, a violation of the emergency order allowing takeout booze during the pandemic. The following week, 67 customers were observed hanging out in front of the bar, even though White Horse Tavern legally couldn’t offer outdoor dining at the time. The NYPD also saw crowds of as many as 100 people gathered on the premises on multiple occasions throughout June.
After outdoor dining began, the complaints kept coming at the tavern. The NYPD was called to the premises multiple times after people reported widespread violations of social distancing, including customers not wearing masks or standing six feet apart from other groups. In total, the SLA charged White Horse Tavern with over 30 violations, including operating an illegal outdoor bar and not following Department of Transportation rules to shut down outdoor dining at 11 p.m.
The tavern’s owner, Sugarman, says that the suspension is “grossly unfair.” According to Sugarman, he adjusted operations after each visit from the NYPD, including putting up signs to inform customers about social distancing guidelines, buying masks to hand out to customers who weren’t wearing one, and posting on social media pleading with customers to follow the rules when they come out to the bar. Starting on the weekend of July 4, Sugarman hired a security guard to enforce the policies more rigorously.
“I put up signs, refused service to people without masks,” Sugarman says. “But they want me to police that people aren’t standing six feet apart. I don’t have the right to physically pull people apart. I can offer them masks. Beyond that, I can’t be the social distancing police.” Other owners have levied similar complaints while struggling to comply with social distancing measures.
Many scenes of customers violating social distancing protocols have played out in front of restaurants across the city during the summer. NYC has received over 700 social distancing complaints in Manhattan since the beginning of outdoor dining, though it’s not clear how many of those complaints were tied specifically to restaurant and bar customers.
Plenty of restaurants in the city put up tables and chairs ahead of the official start of outdoor dining, as well. Owners told Eater at the time that they pushed ahead out of financial necessity, as sales took a huge hit during the city’s months-long lockdown.
Sugarman says that he understands the public health implications of people crowding in front of the bar, but says that the current rules around social distancing and outdoor dining are untenable. “Clearly, this is a plan that doesn’t work,” Sugarman says.