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"We are all literally dying on the vine here. I’m just trying to pay the rent."

Hell's Kitchen business owners have hit back at Governor Cuomo's threats to take away liquor licenses and close down bars after crowds gathered last weekend. "Don't make me come down there..." he tweeted. But businesses would like him to come down and see the multiple challenges they are facing.



Franco Lazzary, owner of Vice Versa, summed up the views of many: "As restaurant owners, we want to follow the guidelines and rules, but we cannot prevent customers from gathering on sidewalks and we don't have the authority to enforce the law on public soil. It is a delicate balance between people who are tired of staying home and businesses in desperate need to reopen. Public officials need to understand that too."


The challenges of policing the sidewalk were raised by others. "I am not authorized to police the sidewalk or streets. It is up to individuals to make their choices. I can make recommendations and we do," stressed Pocket Bar owner, Suzy Darling, "Bars are being blamed and reprimanded due to public pressure from social shamers. We are all literally dying on the vine here. I’m just trying to pay the rent."


Romeo & Juliet on W42nd St - 11th Ave mainly serves coffee, but has a drinks license too. Owner Carlos Ramirez is most concerned by his customers not wearing masks. He told us: "This morning one of my staff asked a guy to wear a mask. He just straight told her to 'F... off!'. How do you deal with that?"


The unclear guidance on to-go drinks (coupled with threats of liquor licenses being taken away) worries Noelia Ostos at HK Fusion on 10th Ave. She wants Governor Cuomo to help more. "The reason that I take the risk of running my business is because the rent and bills don’t stop coming. I would like Mr Cuomo to approve a law to freezing the rent or lower the rent for the whole of 2020 because is not fair to small businesses."


Luis Garcia, manager at Arriba Arriba, on 9th Ave - 51st St, where large crowds had gathered, told us: "On Saturday night, the police closed the doors of all restaurants on the corners on 51st St because of the crowding. This basically sends us back to the beginning in terms of sales. If there are no police enforcing the rules, how can we do it? Patrons don't care about what we ask them to do. We are trying to make the money we need to pay our past due bills."


All restaurants are experimenting with formats that attract customers, while maintaining social distancing. Steve Olsen, owner of West Bank Cafe, told us he'd experimented this weekend with a couple of four-top tables outside, 10 feet apart, to improve the appearance of the front and to serve as a place for customers to sit while they wait for their orders. "There are restaurants that are putting high top tables and stools in the streets and have waitress service and 50-plus customers. It’s happening throughout a lot of neighborhoods around town and Brooklyn. I don’t mean to 'dime' anybody but I know many people that have quarantined themselves for the last 14 weeks and this bar scene totally discredits their efforts."


"We’re operating inside the Phase 1 guidelines 100%, but not all businesses are." Charlie Marshall from The Marshal said. "I understand people want this to be over, but it isn’t, so in my opinion, suck it up. We’ve all got a right to go out and get a drink and take it home, but congregating with no masks for hours on end is something I find to be grossly irresponsible and disrespectful of our neighbors. We’ve all taken high school biology class, so no one can claim ignorance on this."


Beth Sheinis at The Hourglass Tavern is more troubled by personal safety. "Anyone who has stopped by has been mask wearing and physically compliant. We've been closing down by 8pm because the neighborhood is rife with aggressive panhandlers."


The other message that came through from business owners is that they need Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to confirm what is happening with Open Streets immediately so they can make plans. Back on April 16, Community Board 4 wrote to the Mayor to recommend multiple streets in the area should be opened to pedestrians:


• W35th St, 9th to 11th Ave,

• W36th St and W37th St, 8th to 11th Ave,

• W43rd St, 8th to 10th Ave,

• W44th St, W45th St, and W46th St, 8th to 12th Ave,

• W51st St, W53rd St, and W56th St, 8th to 11th Ave.


So far the DOT and Mayor have approved W51st St - 9th/10th Ave, which has become the focus of the current problems. More open streets mean more places for people to disperse rather than congregate in one spot.


Crowds congregate on the corner of W51st St - 9th Ave. Photograph: Matt D'Silva

Speaker of New York City Council, Corey Johnson, stresses the point: "Using our street space to allow restaurants to open with outdoor dining is a no-brainer. It's good for restaurants, it's good for workers in the industry, and it's good for New Yorkers."


Meanwhile, Hell's Kitchen business owners are ready for Governor Cuomo's call. He said at his press briefing yesterday: "So I made a few phone calls and said to restaurant owners, bar owners, 'What are you doing? We have the guidelines. People are violating everything. Everything, no masks, no social distancing. You're violating the rules. What are you doing?’ So I just wanted to make sure they knew the laws and the rules and make sure they knew that the state was going to be sending out inspectors."

Businesses want help to enforce mask wearing by their patrons, they want help policing the streets, they want the streets open so that there is more social distancing – and they don't appreciate threats of having their licenses removed when their businesses are already underwater.


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