National News

Lap dances, karaoke, late hours: The speak-easies of the COVID era

Posted January 6, 2021 4:01 p.m. EST
Updated January 6, 2021 7:59 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — In Brooklyn, investigators arrived at a bar in December to discover exotic dancers giving lap dances to patrons behind a locked door as music blared, state officials said.

At a karaoke bar in Queens, officers found eight rooms filled with people and a manager, none wearing a mask. Just three days earlier, police had discovered a nearly identical scene at the same spot.

And at a locked-up lounge in the Bronx, investigators slipped in through a side door and stumbled upon more than 50 people smoking hookah and not wearing face masks, officials said.

All over New York City, the restrictions put in place to contain the coronavirus have given rise to an unknown number of illicit clubs and bars — would-be speak-easies for the COVID-19 era — as previously legitimate bars and restaurants go underground to survive.

Bars and restaurants that flout the rules against indoor dining risk seeding more infections at a time when the virus is surging. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that more than 8,600 people were hospitalized for COVID statewide, more than double the number at the beginning of December.

In a city where more than 25,000 people have died from the virus, the potential dangers of further spread are clear. An overwhelming majority of the city’s businesses have complied with the rules, and even the owners of some of the places accused of violations acknowledge that bars and restaurants present a high risk for transmission.

“I didn’t have a problem with the rules,” said Kristian Kane, the owner of a bar in Brooklyn where investigators said they found people who were failing to practice social distancing.

But while a tavern on Staten Island, Mac’s Public House, has drawn widespread attention by making defiance of the rules a political rallying point, the owners of several other establishments caught violating the rules said their aims were far from ideological. Instead, they said, they were quietly grappling with the difficulty of staying in business during the pandemic, when support for the flagging hospitality industry has been nearly nonexistent.

Several said they had almost no income, trouble understanding how and when the rules changed and difficulty persuading the relatively few customers who still showed up to wear masks or socially distance.

And as the winter sets in, they are caught in an even more precarious situation, with indoor dining banned in the city and outdoor dining less feasible in colder weather.

Jose Chiqui, who owns a bar and restaurant in the South Bronx, El Chicanito, has been charged by the state Liquor Authority three different times for violating pandemic rules. In December, officers inspected the bar just before 1 a.m. and found it open in violation of a 10 p.m. curfew that Cuomo had put in place in response to a surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Chiqui did not deny the violation. But closing before 10 p.m., he said, would devastate his business.

“Our clientele is Latin, Mexican; they work in downtown Manhattan,” he said. “By the time they get here, we’re supposed to be closed.”

Chiqui said the fines from earlier charges amounted to around $10,000. He said he shut his business for good last month after the latest charges were brought.

“It doesn’t make sense being in business if you’re hit from the city by fines,” he said.

The new rules on how and when bars and restaurants can operate have also brought a much more aggressive approach to enforcement.

The state Liquor Authority, the driving force of enforcement statewide, normally has about 30 investigators, but this year, by drawing in personnel from other departments, the investigative force is closer to 200, liquor authority officials said. As of December, the liquor authority had suspended 279 licenses this year, compared to 29 last year.

“We’re enforcing in a more proactive manner than we ever have,” said Sharif Kabir, executive deputy commissioner of the authority.

As the winter takes hold, officials expect the crackdown to continue amid a citywide ban on indoor dining. State officials, noting that bans on indoor and outdoor dining early in the pandemic did not eliminate violations, are bracing for the possibility that enforcement might become even more challenging.

“The cold weather may create more of a motivation for licensees to break the law and cater to those who want to eat and inside drink inside, violating the state’s public health rules,” said Gary Meyerhoff, general counsel for the state Liquor Authority.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said violations can be accompanied by fines as high as $50,000 and can pose significant financial challenges for bars and restaurants.

“You hear stories from restaurateurs that are unable to sleep at night because of the inspections,” he said. “They feel they are trying so hard to comply with countless requirements in an impossible situation and inspectors are just waiting to get them.”

Meyerhoff said that businesses that have been operating since March “should know where to find the information you need about how to operate.”

“I don’t know that we can say anything other than we have a duty to enforce the law,” he said.

At C.J.’s Bar in Queens, which has had its liquor license suspended twice this year, Bobby Abru, an employee and the boyfriend of the owner, said the owner had to pay a $35,000 fine to get her license back. He said they were targeted after officers saw two or three people leave without masks.

“I can understand if they were going in, but they were going out; what are we supposed to do, chase them down?” he said. C.J.’s has been open for six years and employs 12 people. Abru said he does not know if it will survive. On a recent day in December, workers were disassembling a gazebo, which had been a replacement set up for outdoor dining after a series of tents blew down. But the city had deemed the gazebo unsafe. The tents and the gazebo combined cost $13,000, he said.

“I can understand trying to stay safe, but make it fair,” he said.

At a sports bar in Staten Island, Deja Vu, state investigators said they found the bar was open around 12:15 a.m. with 40 people inside — well over the number allowed — and the front gate rolled down “in an effort to appear closed.” Its liquor license was suspended.

Jose Luis Juarez, 43, an owner of the bar, acknowledged that there were more people inside than allowed but contended the number was 28, not 40. He said he had rolled down the gate to indicate to customers inside that the business was closed and that they should leave.

The customers did not feel comfortable following rules on social distancing and mask-wearing, making it difficult for the restaurant to enforce the rules and forcing him to think about whether and how to kick out the paying customers who were barely keeping his business afloat.

The stakes for Juarez were dire, he said: Before the pandemic, he would pull in $10,000 to $12,000 dollars each week. When outdoor dining started up, he made less than half of that. Even before indoor dining was shut down, he could not cover his rent and other bills with a limited capacity, especially as people avoided sitting outside.

Juarez, who still owes his landlord three months of rent from when he was shut in the spring, closed the business. He said whether he can reopen will depend on how much he is fined by the state.

The state Liquor Authority can pursue different levels of punishment, ranging from issuing a warning to suspending a liquor license.

Some businesses, however, say the pandemic rules are not properly applied. State officials said they suspended the liquor license for Paper Rain, a bar in East New York, Brooklyn, after they found it hosting a “stripper party” and “observed exotic dancers performing lap dances” in violation of the bar’s liquor license. The state said the lap dances violated rules on social distancing and focused on an advertisement that said the bar was open until 12 a.m. in violation of Cuomo’s curfew order.

But Kane, the owner of Paper Rain, said his liquor license permits him to have employee dancing and that the women were dancing in bikinis, not fully stripping. State officials said the bar had advertised a party ending at 12 a.m., in violation of the 10 p.m. curfew, but Kane said the advertisement was old and he has been closing at 10 p.m.

“I’m probably just thinking about leaving New York altogether,” he said. “It’s like they want to get rid of the nightlife altogether.”

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