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When Will New York’s Bars Feel Like Bars Again?

Even in the process of reopening, Governor Cuomo’s rules — justified through the lens of public health — have fundamentally changed what it means to drink in a New York City bar

One of my favorite pre-pandemic indulgences, a simple routine that’s no longer permitted in our COVID-19-battered city, was unwinding at my local Hell’s Kitchen bar. After a never-ending day staring at my computer, I’d take a seat at the counter and order a strong daiquiri. If I didn’t have to wake up too early the next morning, I’d follow that up with a small pour of mezcal.

Booze, to be sure, was only part of the equation. The true point of going to a bar was to rejoin the world. Sometimes I’d chat with the bartender about what Caribbean rums he was digging lately. On other nights I’d run into my cousin who was waiting tables at an overpriced brasserie, or talk with a few off-shift bartenders from a Mexican spot nearby. Or sometimes I’d just listen to Cardi B piping through the speakers, watch the iridescent disco ball spinning above my head, and catch up on some reading on my iPhone. And I’d begin to feel human again.

Now, getting a cocktail at my same local bar means neither mingling with strangers nor chatting up the bartender. It means no stopping in for a quick frozen margarita. It means sitting not at a communal counter, but at a socially distanced table, and with a plate of food, be it chips and salsa or a plate of tacos. If you’re sitting less than six feet away from someone here, that’s because plexiglass is acting as a barrier. If you’re a solo imbiber looking for a few drinks after a hard day, you should bring reading material. There are no Friday night DJs, no dancing, no standing. The last outdoor seating is at 9:00 p.m. and each patron can only stay for 90 minutes, per the venue’s very fair rules.

The pandemic drinking experience is still more convivial than drinking at home, but in bars forced to operate under elaborate and restrictive anti-COVID-19 setups, the experience sometimes more closely evokes the transactional nature of an airport Buffalo Wild Wings than a place where everybody knows your name. Casual neighborhood watering holes without expansive outdoor space, in particular, could face a true identity crisis — a reality that may prompt patrons to seek their merriment elsewhere.

Drinking in the city has been fundamentally altered, with no prospect for any return to the Before Times. To be sure, some of the more obvious changes are a good thing. Outdoor drinking — along with dining — has brought energy to city streets, conveying that “eyes on the street” sense of joy, safety, and community that Jane Jacobs famously wrote about in 1961. Avenue filled with polite imbibers and live music have made previously barren swaths of Midtown come to life.

Yet at the same time, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo progressively tightens state regulations on bars, marking an effort to avoid a surge in the pandemic, which has killed over 19,000 residents so far, drinking in New York also feels lonelier than ever. Both indoors and outdoors, Cuomo’s new rules have transformed many of these communal places into highly regulated establishments with all the less-sociable trappings of sit-down restaurants, where every table is an island and the space between them is meant not for mingling but for walking to the restroom. That’s a particularly tough reality for anyone craving the informal, boisterous, cramped, standing-room environments that make watering holes such vital third places — those proverbial spots between work and home that almost feel like a public extension of one’s living room.

When contemplating third places — libraries, coffee shops, or other totems of community and public engagement — sociologist Ray Oldenburg suggested nine identifying characteristics in his seminal 1989 work The Great Good Place.

A third place, by Oldenburg’s logic, has reliable regulars, and boasts spaces where conversation is the main activity. Inclusivity is prioritized over formal membership, and accessibility is key, with these venues opening early and operating sometimes “until the wee hours of the night.” Third places are casual spots where folks don’t need to dress up, where different social classes of people mingle, where people can “come and go as they please” — unlike at a three-course sit-down dinner.

By these standards, most 24-hour diners would pass a third-place test, whereas a hushed tasting-menu joint with a dress code — or a chic and tiny cocktail lounge where a drink costs more than a bowl of ramen — would not. Neighborhood bars as a general class, however, tend to fit the paradigm. Oldenburg devotes entire chapters to how the Irish pub, the German biergarten, and the American tavern function as ideal everyday third places. Specifically, he details how drinking establishments facilitate friendships among strangers, how patrons can move about the space and join multiple conversations, and how folks often talk loudly so incidental bystanders can hear and participate.

The Great Good Place does not have any chapters exclusively dedicated to sit-down, full-service restaurants in their modern iteration; even Oldenburg’s musings on French bistros and cafes focus on their status as places for collective alcohol consumption. Indeed, the lower financial barrier to patronizing a bar allows it to attract a crowd more typical of a proper community institution. And while a bar might not provide the same type of gastronomic inspiration or nourishment as a formal restaurant, its environment is more conducive to enjoying the full pharmacological and social benefits of a gin and tonic or two.

In June — before outdoor dining was permitted — gatherings outside of bars suggested that human contact, and mild inebriation, is precisely what lots of folks were craving. Patrons, taking advantage of the state’s new rules allowing takeout beverages, drank freely outside of their favorite hangouts on the Upper East Side, in Hell’s Kitchen, in the West Village, and elsewhere. Cuomo regularly expressed dismay at these occurrences, and began issuing a series of rules — reducing operating hours, mandating pairing drinks with food, and forcing the closure of indoor bar seating — that would start to chip away at New York bars’ third-place attributes.

These rules, however justified from a public health standpoint, disadvantage some of the most accessible neighborhood bars. Compared with the Before Times, there’s nothing presumably too different about sitting at a tony cocktail parlor and sipping polychromatic tiki drinks while nibbling on beef tartare lettuce cups during the early evening — the type of experience that’s about as functional to most everyday drinkers as a $86 strip steak. Those venues will likely remain unchanged, but other spots will require more of a pivot. As I cycle past packed bars of all stripes around town, I see way too many Irish bars and dives closed in Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown West, and near Penn Station.

A controlling issue is that the product at these working-class establishments is interchangeable. Sure, your favorite bartender likely makes a Manhattan just the way you like it, but unlike your favorite lamb barbacoa or architectural tasting-menu dish, that drink probably isn’t tough to make at home. A frothy pint of Guinness or splash of Laphroaig 12 year probably tastes the same at a nearby park as it does at an outdoor lounge. And when much of the communal joy and accessibility is stripped away, when the new closing time is two hours earlier, and when you can’t help but wonder whether going back out for a mojito might put your favorite staffer at risk of getting sick, it’s hard not to think that there are better ways to drink on the town.

I’m not yet dining or drinking at venues with formal wait service, but I’ve found replacement third places. Like many New Yorkers, I’ve spent more time discreetly sipping in Prospect Park with friends than anywhere else this summer. I’d also imagine slurping cocktails or wine coolers through straws with a mask would be a pleasant activity while strolling up and down the High Line. Allowing this to happen on a broader scale, of course, would require the city to repeal open-container laws that criminalize the public consumption of alcoholic beverages. The city should do just that.

As of July, New York had doled out twice as many summonses for drinking in public as during the same time the year before, with the vast majority of those citations going to Black people and members of the Latinx community, according to data analyzed by Gothamist. Dropping open-container laws would also give folks who avoid going out for ethical reasons — like preserving the health of their fellow city residents — a safe, legal, and affordable alternative to enjoying the company of their kin. The affordable part is key, as one could argue that open-container laws, in addition to criminalizing houselessness, unfairly tax drinking away from home for anyone without the funds to patronize food and drink establishments on a regular basis.

Once the weather turns too cool to drink, however, I wouldn’t mind enjoying a martini indoors — perhaps as part of a socially distanced MoMA tour group, as opposed to a tight dive bar at 50 percent capacity. The notion of museumgoers toting pina coladas while walking past artworks that cost more than townhouses, alas, probably doesn’t sit well with curators. But still, that dreamy hypothetical prompts the question of whether there could be more communal and less commercial reimaginings of third-place drinking establishments, especially as more New Yorkers find themselves a bit lonelier and a touch poorer. As writers, chefs, and others rethink the prevailing restaurant model for pandemic times and beyond, doing the same is arguably just as necessary for bars and for drinking, a practice that has become less social and accessible over the past six months.