The New York State task force appointed to ensure that restaurants and bars are following COVID-19-related safety protocols seemingly commenced its crackdown on establishments with improper outdoor dining structures in February. The State Liquor Authority, which is part of this multi-agency task force, has so far suspended the liquor licenses of nine restaurants and bars in the city, including Williamsburg bar Our Wicked Lady and Cuban-Asian fusion restaurant Aura Cocina, after finding that these establishments used outdoor setups with more than two sides enclosed earlier this month.
All the suspensions occurred prior to the return indoor dining on February 12, which signaled yet another round of updates to the regulations concerning how outdoor structures can be used. According to state rules, restaurants and bars need to have to at least two fully open sides to allow for airflow. However, when indoor dining is allowed. structures with more than two sides enclosed can operate at the same capacity — currently 25 percent in NYC — as the indoor dining room.
Enclosed outdoor dining structures began popping up in the city last fall after the weather turned colder. While restaurants could open their indoor dining rooms at 25 percent capacity, many said they couldn’t stay open for the long term with the seating limitation. The situation turned worse for owners when the state banned indoor dining in December last year, leaving restaurants to rely on a mix of takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining amid increasingly unpredictable weather, including one of NYCs biggest snowstorms in history. Yet health experts had been warning for some time about the safety of these enclosed structures, with many pointing out they were essentially tented indoor dining spaces located outdoors.
Still, it appears that until this month, the state hadn’t cracked down on such establishments. A spokesperson for the NYC’s Department of Transportation, one of the many agencies overseeing the operation of restaurants outdoors during the pandemic, previously told Eater that the agency was eschewing fines and instead trying to work with individual restaurant owners to get them to fix their structures so that they were compliant.
That doesn’t seem to be the case for the SLA, however, which is a state agency. In January, the agency suspended the liquor license of Lower East Side Australian restaurant Dudley’s over its enclosed outdoor structure, seemingly the first instance of a liquor license being suspended over an outdoor dining setup. Nine other NYC establishments have now joined that list and could potentially face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
At Our Wicked Lady, at 153 Morgan Avenue, at Meserole Street, investigators allege they observed multiple diners eating and drinking in an enclosed rooftop space at the Williamsburg bar on January 27 and 29. On January 28, investigators observed several fire code violations at the establishment and issued a cease-and-desist letter to a bar manager, followed by a phone call later that same day going over all the violations. The suspension came down on February 1 after investigators say they had not seen any changes made on January 29.
Owners of the bar were “unnerved” by the suspension says Ken Belkin, who is representing the bar, along with dozens of other NYC establishments in a lawsuit against the state for what they allege are constantly changing regulations that they claim have violated their civil rights. The visits from investigators and the suspension came shortly after the lawsuit was filed, says Belkin, but he says he’s unsure if it was a form of retaliation by the state.
“I would prefer to believe it’s a coincidence,” says Belkin. “But many of the restaurants are now fearing retaliation.” He went on to add that Our Wicked Lady was the only one of his clients to face any charges from the SLA following the lawsuit, and said the bar still has plans to reopen once these charges have been addressed. The SLA did not immediately return a request for comment.
At Midtown Italian restaurant Il Gattopardo, on West 54th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, investigators observed 32 diners eating inside a fully-enclosed outdoor structure on February 6. Restaurant owner Gian Franco says he’s paid a $5,000 fine and is hopeful he’ll receive his liquor license back in the next day or two. He said that multiple city agencies had inspected his outdoor dining setup including the city’s department of buildings and the transportation department, prior to the SLA’s visit, and none had found fault with the structure. “Unfortunately one agency does not talk with the other,” he said. “There is a lot of confusion.”
Many other restaurant owners have also pointed to the confusing and shifting guidelines in the past. For instance, the state’s outdoor dining guidelines don’t clearly state if the plastic outdoor dining bubbles seen throughout the city are permissible, yet the city’s guidelines indicate that those bubbles were allowed, even when indoor dining was paused, as long as the bubbles had adequate ventilation and were only seating one family at a time. Previously, the city said restaurants had to have “50 percent” of their outdoor dining structures open, but later the state updated those guidelines to add that at least two sides had to be fully open.
Restaurants in the city that have previously had their liquor licenses suspended — which have since been reinstated in most cases — have ended up paying fines of up to $50,000, according to the SLA’s data. Il Gattopardo’s fine appears to be on the lower end of the fines paid so far, according to the data.
The suspensions announced Wednesday were part of a larger crackdown this month that saw the SLA suspend the licenses of 23 New York establishments due to a variety of safety concerns related to COVID-19 protocols, including social distancing violations and people gathering in large groups indoors without face coverings.
Since the start of the pandemic, the SLA has suspended the licenses of 393 businesses statewide due to safety violations, though a majority have since seen their liquor licenses reinstated after paying fines. This year, the SLA has issued a total of 449 charges against restaurants and bars in the state, but liquor license suspensions only happen in the most “egregious” instances, according to state guidelines. Businesses face fines of up to $10,000 per violation. Still, a majority of establishments in the city and state have been compliant with the guidelines, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“The vast majority of bar and restaurants are following the rules, but we have zero tolerance for those who openly ignore public health measures, putting New Yorkers’ lives at risk — and we will continue to hold them accountable,” said the governor in a statement.
Below is a full list of NYC establishments where liquor licenses were suspended this month either fully or partly because of enclosed outdoor structures:
- Our Wicked Lady, 153 Morgan Avenue
- Kaifeum, 3100 Ocean Parkway
- Aura Cocina, 315 Meserole Street
- Parrilladas Sunrise, 83-11 Northern Boulevard
- Mama Sushi, 237 Dyckman Street
- Johnny’s Restaurant Bar and Lounge, 107-09 Rockaway Boulevard
- Il Gattopardo, 13-15 West 54th Street
- Carneval Brooklyn Bar and Grill, 507 Grand Street
- El Neuvo Cafe Espana Sports Bar, 81-03 Roosevelt Avenue