Seven ways the government can help bars survive
News that New York's famed Pegu Club was closing for good upset bar lovers nationwide when the announcement came at the end of April. The 14-year old bar founded by Audrey Saunders had helped pioneer the craft cocktail scene; dozens of top mixologists trained there.
While restaurants have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention since coronavirus-related closings took effect in mid-March, bars have, for the most part, been left out of the conversation. The situation looks especially grim in New York, where many of the best places to drink are set in small, low-ceilinged spaces that are not conducive to social distancing.
Greg Boehm owns five bars across downtown Manhattan, including Katana Kitten, Existing Conditions, and Mace. He is also the owner of barware shop Cocktail Kingdom and founder of the Miracle Christmas pop-up empire, a kitschy seasonal franchise that last year had 107 locations around the U.S. and in countries as disparate as Mexico, Switzerland, and Romania. As such, Boehm has had plenty of dealings with government licensing boards, particularly the New York's State Liquor Authority (SLA), which issues permits and controls the distribution of alcohol.
The SLA and Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved fast at the start of the pandemic. "The SLA has generally been great through the pandemic and relaxed rules that have kept people in business," observes Joseph Levey, founding partner of Levey Braun, a hospitality-focused law firm, who works with Boehm. "But the whole system is nuanced and ridiculous and ancient and sometimes counterintuitive, and there's room for updates."
Particular to New York, for instance, most bars are overseen by local Community Boards that negotiate with owners regarding approvals of liquor licenses. "They might say, 'If you want to stay open until 2 a.m, you will have to keep your windows closed,'" says Levey. Although the SLA has final say on most of the bars' operating rules, it generally accepts Community Board recommendations.
Such quirks aren't limited to New York. Since Prohibition ended, drinking in the U.S. has been in a patchwork of local and state laws that owners must dance to navigate through-and it's only going to get harder in a post-pandemic world.
If we consider Manhattan as a case study, here are seven suggestions Boehm has for government agencies on how bars such as his might better survive, if not thrive, in the future.
1. Let bars sell pre-mixed drinks. Believe it or not, it is illegal to sell pre-mixed alcoholic drinks in New York. It's an antiquated directive and challenging for cocktail bars that often use them to save time. That punch that was ladled out of a bowl at a speakeasy, the pitcher of sangria that wasn't made just when you ordered it, or that bottled martini? Unless it came from a tap, it was against the law. Though there's little enforcement of this rule, bar owners such as Boehm live in fear. In a future of even-slimmer margins, it's a cost savings that can't be ignored.
2. Keep the to-go drinks going. One bright spot for New York's bars and lounges during the pandemic has been the ability to sell to-go drinks; it's keeping such spots as Dante, the current World's Best Bar, in business. The city has to allow places to continue to do this, says Boehm, to make up for reduced capacity in spaces, as well as for people who are not going to be comfortable sitting in bars. That's not to say New York should turn into New Orleans. "I'm not advocating for open containers," he says. Within proximity of the bar, people should be allowed to consume drinks, and also to buy to-go cocktails. But don't stray too far off premise while you're drinking; the New York Police Department still has the power to write a ticket for this.
3. Offer more flexibility on operating hours. Several bars have stipulations that force them to close at a certain time, by midnight or earlier. (The city may never sleep, but local residents often want to.) New York is a 4 a.m. state; the four hours when booze can't be served run from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. Boehm says more leniency would help spread the flow of customers and reduce crowding in the event that capacity restrictions get more severe.
4. Let bars deliver spirits. It's legal for places with a liquor license to sell beer-in cans, growlers, and so forth-for delivery, but it's been illegal to deliver spirits or pre-batched cocktails. As with the loosening of rules that have turned restaurants into liquor stores, says Boehm, don't limit bars to takeaway drinks, but give them the opportunities that restaurants have to deliver bottles of booze, as well as kits and actual cocktails.
5. Allow more sidewalk cafes. Several city streets are zoned for sidewalk cafes. West 8th Street, for one, is home to Boehm's modernist bar Existing Conditions. Still, he never applied to the the city's Department of Consumer Affairs for a cafe permit. Why? It was made clear to him by the Block Association and Community Board that no sidewalk permits would ever be approved on the block. And even if Boehm did manage to get one, he'd have to go through the process of applying for a liquor license for outdoor seating, even though the interior of his bar has one. Easing up the process, particularly on uncrowded streets-of which there will soon be 40 miles more-would give New York's bars some desperately needed room to fit more paying customers. (A bonus customer benefit: Drinking outdoors is likely safer than it is inside when it comes to virus transmission.)
6. Open the windows. Community Boards often force bars and restaurants to close their windows at a certain time, say 9 p.m., if they are allowed to open their windows at all. Without mandating that residential streets be subject to DJ sets at 3 a.m., Boehm urges that those policies be reconsidered to let some fresh air in, even if some of the gaieties of life get out.
7. Relax bill-paying rules. The SLA has a "posted" rule, also known as the "Bad Boy List," which maintains that if you are late paying one liquor distributor, it can effect all your liquor accounts. Relax those rules, says Boehm. Allow more time for places that are currently doing only about 15% of their business, if any at all, to make payments. This is an unprecedented time for the businesses, he says, and they need a little understanding and flexibility.