Some local politicians and business owners have expressed concern about how the SLA is enforcing COVID rules. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

The East Village dive bar Lucky was in the news in August after its liquor license was suspended. Owner Abby Ehmann had been outspoken about her opposition to New York State’s food mandate, which requires that, in order to operate during the COVID pandemic, bars must serve food with all orders. (The SLA has pointed out that bars in New York State have technically been required to serve food since 1964.) She started an online petition to reverse the law on July 27. Her bar was shut down by the State Liquor Authority on August 3 — and critics were quick to draw a line between the timing of those events.

Lucky is open again, but only after Ehmann says she was forced to pay a fine, initially set at $35,000 — an amount that she says is more than her bar has ever made in a single month. (She says her bar once brought in $31,000 one month last summer.) “It was extremely substantial,” Ehmann says of the fine. Although her lawyer, Wylie M. Stecklow, was able to argue the fine down to $10,000, it was still a tremendous amount of money for a small-business owner to pay in the wake of a citywide shutdown. “If I had not applied for back unemployment, I wouldn’t have been able to pay it,” Ehmann explains. “The government put $10,000 into my bank account one day, and the next day I wrote this check to the SLA.”

Ehmann is not alone. The business of selling alcoholic drinks to New Yorkers has transformed dramatically over the past six months, and increasingly, operators say the host of new COVID-related SLA regulations can be difficult to navigate. Furthermore, Hannah Treasure, who works as a server in the West Village, says customers regularly ask to be the exceptions to the rules, frequently trying to order drinks without food. “That’s kind of discouraging,” Treasure says. “You want to put us at risk of losing our liquor license, or getting fined.” In fact, in the the opinion of some operators, it seems that the agency’s inspectors can appear to be more focused on punishing businesses in violation than they are on working with operators to ensure business runs smoothly while everyone remains as safe as possible.

“I think it’s fair to point out that when the governor opened outdoor dining in NYC, that’s what it was,” says SLA spokesperson Bill Crowley. “It wasn’t outdoor bar scene, it wasn’t outdoor drinking. So, sure, I mean, based on CDC guidelines, alcohol served with meals is a lower-risk threshold than simply a bar being open.” When asked about Ehmann’s allegation that the inspection was retaliation for her petition, Crowley responds, “That’s absolutely not true. We conduct probably a thousand details every night in New York City and on Long Island, so that’s the only reason why we were there.”

Over the past few days, the rate of infection in New York City has begun to creep up — there’s been a 43 percent increase in cases over the last two weeks, and the daily positive test rate rose from 1.93 percent yesterday to 3.25 percent today, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio — and the people who spoke to Grub Street for this story all made it clear that they are aware of the danger that comes from loosening restrictions too much. “I’m scared as fuck of COVID,” says the DJ Herbert Holler, who is behind the long-running Freedom Party NYC. “If you’re a venue operator, it’s really hard because on the one hand you’re facing homelessness and starvation or major, major financial duress. But on the other hand, if you’re just going to open and want [the SLA] to be more lenient you could end up killing people.”

Instead, owners say they are confused by the nature of some of the new rules, which do not seem designed for the sake of safety, and some owners expressed concern that the SLA’s fines suggest exploitation of struggling bars to compensate for budget shortfalls. “I get it — the government is broke,” Ehmann says. “But they’re making money off the backs of people who can ill afford it.”

The SLA, for its part, disputes that the COVID rules are informed by anything but safety and containment. “It’s the only reason these rules are being instituted, because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Crowley says. “It’s about getting the coronavirus under control, which New York State has done an incredible job of and is continuing to keep it under control.”

In late August, a group of venues and bars sued the state over a new law that bans ticketed live events, arguing that the rules have been “constantly changing and unworkable,” and that the restriction on advertising specific acts that will play these events is a violation of free speech. “There’s nothing about hearing music that makes coronavirus more likely to jump from one person to the other, right?” says attorney Jonathan Corbett, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the New York chapter of the National Independent Venue Association, a group formed to help venues weather COVID-19, and eight venues across the state including Tralf Music Hall in Buffalo; the Rapids Theater in Niagara Falls; and Birdland Jazz Club, Littlefield, and the Turks Inn in New York City. Corbett has also filed another lawsuit, Columbus Ale House v. Cuomo, arguing against the midnight curfew for restaurants. In the suit, Corbett argues that the state is “regularly fining establishments thousands of dollars at a time for hyper-technical violations that did not exist days earlier,” and that the midnight curfew exists “despite the fact that coronavirus does not behave as a vampire, infecting others only when the moon is out.”

Still others see more alarming trends related to where enforcement is heaviest. State Senator Jessica Ramos — who represents Queens neighborhoods including Corona, Jackson Heights, and Elmhurst — held a press conference on August 19 and rally on September 3 to bring attention to these concerns. “At this point, they’re trying to extract half a million dollars out of my district, which was the epicenter of the epicenter during the pandemic,” she told Grub in August. “I am deathly scared that they are going to use the pandemic as an excuse to advance hyper-gentrification.”

In July, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams spoke at a gathering of minority-owned hospitality businesses, saying, according to news reports, “I believe this is a well-organized plan of closing down Black and brown businesses because of gentrification.” (The SLA told ABC News at the time that it “has zero-tolerance for discrimination of any kind and only takes action when restaurants or bars break the law or put public health at risk.”)

Stecklow, the attorney representing Lucky and its owner, is sympathetic to the difficulties that the current situation presents. “We believe there is a need to protect the city, that the governor and state are acting mostly appropriately,” he says, adding that the state’s representatives with whom he’s dealing “are intelligent, established — they’re not there because they want to be doing something evil like kill small businesses.” Instead, he, like the owners, wants a review of the current rules, and clarity on how and when they’ll be enforced: “I’m not saying, ‘This is insane, why are they doing this?’ We get why it’s happening … I’m just saying the rules all have to make sense, and they don’t all make sense.”