NYC Restaurants To Albany: Keep Lax Liquor Laws Post Pandemic

This week marks the end of the midnight curfew on outdoor dining and indoor capacity restrictions for city restaurants. But with the closing of countless bars and restaurants since the COVID-19 pandemic began and declining revenues among those that survived, the city’s hospitality association is now calling on state lawmakers to allow faster, temporary liquor licenses to promote the industry’s economic rebound.

The State Liquor Authority currently only grants temporary permits for restaurants and grocery stores outside New York City while they’re waiting for their license applications to be fully approved. Full approval can take several months. But temporary permits are processed in approximately 30 days, and are valid for 90 days. 

New legislation sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos, of Jackson Heights, would extend the state’s temporary permits to bars and restaurants in New York City. 

“We can’t handicap them for the rest of this year as we’re trying to rebuild the economy,” she said. By allowing temporary permits, she said local restaurants can open faster and hire more workers.

The New York City Hospitality Alliance is urging Albany lawmakers to pass Ramos’s bill and two other pieces of legislation before the end of the session next month. 

One would continue the sale of alcoholic “to-go” beverages, and the other would continue to allow alcohol service in the new sidewalk sheds and parking space, roadside structures that popped up outside restaurants and bars in New York City. Both types of service were authorized through Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders, not permanent laws.

“Outdoor dining is not going to help my small business or any other small business if we’re not able to sell or serve a glass of wine outdoors,” said Melba Wilson, president of the New York City Hospitality Alliance and owner of Melba’s Restaurant in Harlem. 

The alliance said there are now about 11,0000 restaurants licensed to serve outdoors compared to 1,500 with sidewalk cafes before the pandemic. 

A spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supports all three bills. He already started an Open Boulevards program this month to enhance outdoor dining in 10 locations. But state legislation is necessary to change liquor laws and de]spite support from the governor, a proposal was not included in the state’s new budget. Gothamist/WNYC reached out to Cuomo’s office for a reaction to the new legislation but has yet to hear back.

Daniel Abrams, who owned seven restaurants before the pandemic struck in March of 2020, said he’d like to reopen the Mermaid Inn on Second Avenue and another restaurant after temporarily closing them last fall. But because he surrendered his liquor license, he has to reapply from scratch and it could take up to six months for him to be approved.

“It doesn’t make sense to miss the whole summer season,” he said, adding restaurants make much of their money from alcohol sales. If the bills pass, he said he’d be able to reopen two restaurants — saving about 80 jobs. “There’s really a window for us right now, that if we miss that window we might not be able to reopen those businesses.”

Robert Bookman, an attorney for the hospitality alliance, said temporary licenses would still require restaurants to first win approval from local community boards. He said there are about 1,000 restaurants that already went through the process and are now sitting vacant while waiting for liquor licenses. 

“New York City entrepreneurs shouldn’t be discriminated against by having to wait six months for a liquor license when anywhere else in the state it’s 30 days for a temporary,” he said.

He also said allowing alcohol to-go wouldn’t change the city’s open container law, because drinks would only accompany meals that are being delivered. 

Kyle Athayde, chair of Manhattan Community Board 6 which includes Stuyvesant Town and Gramercy Park, said his board hasn’t had an opportunity yet to examine the new legislation. He said his fellow board members want to help small businesses and strongly supported “to-go” sales during the pandemic. But because the bill would make that permanent, “we would want public input before deciding on any such support going forward.”

Similarly, when it comes to extending outdoor dining in a neighborhood with many bars alongside residential buildings, he said further support “would again have to be inclusive of the public and their experiences, particularly as street congestion returns to normal.”

Fellow Manhattan community board chair Jeanine Kiely, who leads Community Board 2 which covers Manhattan bounded by 14th Street, Canal Street, the Hudson River, and the Bowery/4th Avenue, agrees. “We are ready, willing and able to review and provide recommendations on any and all temporary licensing permits that are applied for while the SLA has a backlog of new applications,” she said in a statement. 

Regarding Open Restaurants, Kiely said, “There is no objection to the current temporary emergency orders that allow non-contiguous outdoor dining. The conversation on the proposed permanent outdoor Open Restaurants dining program, however, is occurring now as we move towards resumption of 100% indoor occupancy and it would be premature to enact any permanent legislation during a pandemic and prior to the conclusion of public input and discussion.”

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering the city’s recovery efforts at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.