Dear Governor Cuomo,
The rules you called for on July 16th prohibiting ordering at the bar and requiring every customer to order food are difficult to enforce, both for the government and for businesses, and will financially devastate thousands of small bars that are acting in good faith to operate while keeping people safe. They also aren’t an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus.
Responsible bar and restaurant operators have taken pains to design systems according to the guidelines while offering customers the hospitality they crave. Your new rules make it harder to offer safe hospitality. I urge you to enforce the sensible protocols that have already been established, and not to lash out at bad actors by hurting those who are trying to do the right thing.
I own a small neighborhood cocktail bar in Brooklyn, and I share your outrage toward bar-goers across New York City who blatantly ignore the rules, and the bar operators who have turned a blind eye to or are complicit in that behavior. You are correct to threaten severe penalties, including closure, to businesses that don’t make a concerted effort to control their
clientele’s behavior: proper table spacing, social-distancing, signage, ground markings, plastic screens, mask requirements, hand sanitizer, hand washing and sanitation protocols are all measures that must be taken to stop the spread of this virus while still safely operating a business.
My bar is compliant in all of these ways. No bartender, or bar owner, wants to play the part of the angry scold, but I have worked with my staff to find ways to firmly, but gracefully enforce the rules. So far we have been successful, and if at some point we are not, customers will be asked to leave. Bar and restaurant operators who flout these rules should be penalized under the law. I am therefore fully in support of your three strikes rule to force compliance.
However, the addition of new draconian rules beyond those required to stem the spread of COVID-19 is capricious and may deal a death blow to already struggling bars. Your food requirement is both vague and ineffective. It neither directly stops the spread of COVID-19, nor will it actually curb the behavior of irresponsible people determined to have a good time, no matter the cost.
There has been much recent debate about what food and how much of it is sufficient to meet the requirement. On July 17th, your senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said that a one-dollar bag of potato chips would suffice if the customer was sitting down, and yet newly released guidance from the State Liquor Authority states that foods such as sandwiches are the minimum. The guidance also states that food must be ordered with the customer’s initial drink, but offers no parameters as to when and if food must be ordered again, or what criteria will be applied when an inspector arrives to find a customer who has long ago finished and cleared her meal.
The lack of clarity will make any enforcement seem arbitrary. Operators are rightly asking, why this food and not that food? What about the space and safety burden the food requirement places on bars, such as mine, without full kitchen facilities? Catering in all cold food will require space, already at a premium, and heating food from cold requires equipment and space beyond the reach of many bars.
But the real point is that selling food to every customer does nothing to keep people safe from infection. Those who want to misbehave will order food and continue to misbehave. Our safety will come from enforcing the virus protocols your administration has so carefully and correctly established. Unless checked by enforcement, thoughtless and inconsiderate people will continue to defy health and safety rules regardless of whether or not there is a sandwich present.
Your other new rule preventing people from ordering at the bar also would not reduce the spread of the virus. In fact, it may work against that goal. My bar’s protocols, consistent with all current regulations and guidelines, are both effective and efficient. Masked customers queue in a socially-distanced line, like at any other counter business or supermarket check-out, and then order from a masked bartender who is standing behind a plastic screen. When they have received their order, they proceed to an outdoor table where once seated, they are allowed to drop their masks.
Setting aside the fact that many bars (and counter service restaurants) cannot afford to hire servers, your prohibition on bar ordering would put those servers, and their customers, in greater danger of contracting COVID than serving from behind a barrier. A server must approach unmasked customers at their tables and interact with them, further endangering both the server and the customers. I am not suggesting that servers should, therefore, be outlawed during the pandemic. People can, and should, selectively participate in controlled situations that carry a non-zero risk of spreading the virus (just leaving the house is a risk). But establishments should not be prohibited from exercising more control.
Mr. Governor, you are vested with an enormous amount of power, and in an emergency such as this one, you are rightly allowed to govern by fiat, as you must make and bend rules as necessary to keep all New Yorkers safe. But your fiat must be tempered by what is practical, and what is kind. The new requirements you announced on July 16th are neither. I beg you to strictly enforce the rules that make sense, and not to create punitive ad hoc rules because you are righteously angry at the behavior of entitled customers and lax business owners.
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