By Liza Weisstuch

Not defeated yet

Everyone’s favourite parlour sport
Following the course of New York City bars and restaurants as they reopen, or try to, has become a bit of a parlour sport.

If you haven’t been keeping score, here’s a condensed timeline, with a quick point of clarification first: things have panned out differently around the state, which includes New York City, rural, industrial and urban upstate, suburban and industrial Long Island, very suburban Westchester county, agricultural Hudson Valley, the sylvan paradise of the Catskills and more. But things have been shifting endlessly in New York’s five boroughs, which should come as a surprise to precisely no one. How does one even begin to imagine making and enforcing rules to manage the safety and wellbeing of 8.3 million citizens in a crisis for which there’s not even a rough sketch of a plan to refer to?

So back to that timeline: Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all bars and restaurants to shut on 16 March, moments before one of the world’s busiest bar days. Everyone immediately pivoted to take-out and delivery, which bestowed ‘essential worker’ status to restaurant staff. It was a meagre lifeline, but a lifeline nonetheless. On 22 June, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio enacted an emergency programme that authorised 6,800 establishments to serve food and drink at outdoor tables that could extend to parts of the sidewalk, and even out to would-be parking spots. That kind of setup would have incurred monstrous fees in normal times, but the pandemic not only eliminated the fees, it relaxed the city’s knotty licensing procedures. A pandemic of this scale had softened the roughest, most rigid of bureaucratic hearts. At this moment, everyone who’s ever dealt with a New York municipal agency is saying, “Wait, bureaucrats have a heart?!”.

Outdoor dining let bar and restaurant owners breathe easier. For a minute. There was always the fear that the pandemic-enacted sales of alcohol to-go, which was up for review monthly, would be rescinded – as I write this, in October, it’s still allowed. Then a few weeks after business owners invested in furniture, planters and the barriers required to delineate their dining space, bureaucracy reared its pesky head and unleashed new rules specifying height and thickness requirements on barrier materials, which hadn’t been mentioned before. Carpenters were in high demand.

Indoor dining was scheduled to resume on 6 July, but that plan was scrapped just a few days prior. Other cities were showing brutal evidence that extended time indoors could be a death wish. Instead, Cuomo rolled out a new stricture: no alcohol sales without food purchase. So began the restaurant community’s Sherlock Holmes-level pursuit to figure out how small a portion is too small to qualify. Some bars just started supplying containers of homemade soup or handmade potato chips so customers could feel welcomed, not obligated. Meantime, the city cracked down on bars that allowed crowds to congregate outside – ‘allow’ being an unfitting term, as the situation is not so much ‘allowed’ as it is hard to control when your skeletal staff is busy. Liquor licenses were suspended. By 11 August, 132 licenses were suspended and 707 charges filed in NYC and Long Island since the pandemic started.

These are just a few outtakes of the steady cycle of waxing and waning, dangling prizes only to yank them away. Every ‘go’ signal leads to a screeching halt. Call it the Wile E. Cayote model. Or fatalism. And, tragically, there’s no way around it. I’ve been to bars throughout every stage since March. It’s been unnerving and reassuring. I’ve seen things I never imagined: an empty Times Square, legendary watering holes shut forever. I dined in a tourist-free café in Little Italy and drank cocktails from some of Manhattan’s elite bars from a plastic cup while sitting on a park bench. I’ve visited bartenders and owners I’ve known for ages, watched them blaze on, never missing a beat, saddened by 2020’s logistical and scientific obstacles but not defeated by them. Bartenders’ work is equal parts art, grit and stamina, a formula ignited by eye contact. I, for one, will be there to provide it whenever I can.