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SLA Outlaws Karaoke, Other Live Entertainment Citing COVID-19 Pandemic

Comedy shows, ticketed musical performances, and late-night karaoke are now banned at NYC restaurants “for reasons of health and safety,” per new guidelines from the State Liquor Authority

The interior of a dimly lit dining room, with two white tablecloth tables visible, dark banquettes, wooden walls, and overhead lights
At the newly opened Dr. Clark, karaoke was one of the restaurant’s biggest draws
Dr. Clark [Official]

New guidelines are out from the State Liquor Authority about live entertainment at New York food businesses, and it’s mostly bad news for restaurants and bars.

In the latest update to its phase three and four dining guidelines, the state agency is now prohibiting some restaurants from offering live music and other forms of outdoor entertainment. The new guidelines specify that restaurants and bars can only offer “incidental entertainment” that their licenses specifically allow for. “Advertised and/or ticketed shows are not permissible,” according to the new guidelines. “Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself.”

Forms of destination entertainment — including comedy shows and karaoke — are no longer allowed at restaurants and bars as part of the policy, even for businesses who are permitted to host them. Additionally, customers who are viewing a performance of any kind are prohibited from doing so while standing and performers must be spaced at least 12 feet from patrons, according to the new guidelines. Spotify playlists and elevator music appear to still be on the table for now.

“This guidance is not new,” the SLA said in an email to Eater. “Live entertainment activities, including all ticketed events, have been prohibited since New York went on PAUSE in mid-March to stop the spread of coronavirus. After seeing an increase in establishments advertising ticketed events, the SLA clarified language on its website and proactively emailed all bars and restaurants to ensure they were aware of the months-old restrictions.”

The new guidelines issued this week were included in a Q&A on the SLA’s website under the heading, “Can I have live entertainment or a DJ in my indoor or outdoor dining area?” Some restaurant owners say they were notified of the changes by email before the language was updated, though. Yudai Kanayama, the restaurateur behind Chinatown’s newly opened Hokkaido restaurant Dr. Clark, says he first learned of the changes on Tuesday, August 18, in an email from the state agency.

According to Kanayama, a person who identified themselves as a worker with the SLA visited Dr. Clark and appeared to conduct an informal inspection of the restaurant’s outdoor karaoke set-up. “They wanted to see our menu and asked if they could take photographs,” Kanayama recalls. Shortly after that visit, the restaurant received a form email from the State Liquor Authority clarifying the new guidelines. At the bottom of the email, an additional note specified that “karaoke is not presently permitted for reasons of health and safety.”

Dr. Clark reopened for outdoor dining in late June and socially distant karaoke is one way that the newly opened restaurant has managed to stay afloat. “There are regulars who come here to sing everyday,” says Kanayama, whose license at Dr. Clark allows for late-night karaoke. Customers at the restaurant are required to order food with karaoke and also wear masks, in compliance with previous guidelines from the State Liquor Authority.

“A lot of people made reservations for dinner and karaoke together,” Kanayama says. “We are now turning everyone down. It’s our first week without karaoke and we’re doing our best.” Meanwhile, other restaurants and bars across the city have also used live entertainment as a way to raise funds for staff and encourage customers to linger while outdoor dining.