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New Law Grants NYC Restaurants and Bars Access to Temporary Liquor Licenses

Throughout the pandemic, restaurant and bars reported facing a lengthy backlog for booze approval

New Restrictions May Close Indoor Dining Again In New York City
Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the measure into law on December 22.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In a small measure of year-end relief, NYC restaurants and bars now have access to temporary liquor licenses from the State Liquor Authority. The legislation — which passed in June but wasn’t signed into law until December 22 — offers a shortcut to a difficult, months-long license waiting process that has slowed many openings in the city.

“As we continue to fight the pandemic, we also need to make sure we protect our economy, and this legislation will cut red tape and bring more customers in the door as quickly as possible to help small businesses get back on their feet,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement on the news. New York’s temporary liquor licenses are typically processed in about 30 days, in comparison to the six-month-long waiting period — or longer — that restaurateurs undergo for full liquor licenses.

“While there’s still more work to support the vital industry, this important new law will help small businesses open up faster, put people to work sooner, bring life to vacant restaurants around the city, and stimulate the economy,” Andrew Rigie, the executive director of NYC’s Hospitality Alliance, said in a statement in support of the legislation.

City restaurateurs have long been advocating for access to temporary liquor licenses in order to sell alcohol on-site more quickly. Until now, the allowance has only been available to businesses outside of the five boroughs.

Santa Fe BK, a New Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg, has been selling breakfast burritos out of a takeout window with a skeleton crew while waiting for approval on a liquor license application that it submitted in August. Co-owner John Watterberg says that, without the liquor license, he “can limp along to the finish line,” until the restaurant opens for full service but that the backlog with licenses made it “harder to be solvent in the long-run.” Though Watterberg is skeptical Santa Fe BK qualifies for the new measure, and fears it may be another type of “lip-service” from the SLA, obtaining a temporary liquor license would be a step forward for the business. According to Watterberg, the SLA has told them that they won’t gain approval for a full liquor license until March of next year.

Other restaurants, like modern Korean newcomer 8282, “didn’t have the luxury,” says co-owner Jee Young Kim, of waiting to open with a cocktail program. The recent COVID-19 surge has already put a dent into the restaurant’s sales, with 80 reservation cancellations per day over the past week. “For newly-opened restaurants there are so many things we’re working against — permits, inspections, and renovations that are in compliance — this would be a huge help,” Kim says.

St. John Frizell, the owner of Red Hook spot Fort Defiance, was surprised by the news. On December 21, he told Eater that he was closing down Fort Defiance until March, because he had yet to successfully obtain a liquor license at the new location of his business and could not afford to operate as a general store alone. Now, he says, this new temporary provision could “change the calculus,” and might allow Fort Defiance to rehire staff sooner than he initially planned.

“Two months is too long to be out of work,” Frizell says. “If we can shorten that to four to six weeks, we’d likely be able to hold onto our staff.”

Some questions that are still unclear with the legislation: Will the state’s current 500-foot law still be enforced? Will restaurants that have already applied for full liquor licenses be eligible to apply for temporary licenses? These questions will be addressed in bill amendments when lawmakers reassemble for the upcoming legislative session in January, according to a spokesperson for Gov. Hochul.

The order in which temporary licenses will be granted, and whether restaurants that have already submitted full applications will get top priority in temporary approvals, is still to be determined, according to the spokesperson. Applications for temporary licenses will be available on the SLA’s website, which is being updated to reflect the new law.

While the new measure is a positive step forward, the convoluted liquor license approval process has still left Fort Defiance and many other businesses in limbo for the past couple months. “None of this undoes the damage the State Liquor Authority has done to our business,” Frizell says.