NY relaxing curfew for some. Bar, restaurant owners wonder: Why not us?

ALBANY – Nearly every day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is announcing new ways he is rolling back COVID-19 restrictions on businesses big and small.

He's letting amusement parks open their doors. Sports teams will be able to welcome more fans. Casinos and bowling alleys will soon get to stay open later.

But there's one rule Cuomo has been steadfast in upholding despite withering criticism from the business owners it affects: The state's months-old curfew for bars and restaurants, which prevents them from serving anything other than curbside takeout after 11 p.m.

Cuomo, who is embroiled in unrelated sexual harassment and nursing home scandals, announced Wednesday his administration will allow casinos, billiards halls, bowling alleys and gyms stay open past 11 p.m., rescinding a rule that had been in place in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

But Cuomo made clear the same 11 p.m. curfew would remain for restaurants and bars, as well as a similar 12 a.m. curfew for catering halls. He committed to reexamining the issue in April, with a press release from his office suggesting a decision could come later that month.

Marko Guzijan, president of the Hudson Valley Food Hall at the Roosevelt Bar in Beacon on July 2, 2019.

Just how serious is Cuomo's administration about the restaurant-and-bar curfew?

On Thursday, his office confirmed any bars located inside casinos and bowling alleys will still be required to close at 11 p.m., even as the facilities themselves are allowed to stay open later beginning April 5.

"The 11 p.m. curfew for food and beverage establishments and the 12 a.m. curfew for catered events will remain in effect for the time being," Cuomo said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. 

"We're evaluating both now and we will have an announcement on them in April."

Restaurants wonder when curfew will be lifted

Chef Anthony Accomando prepares a pan seared salmon in his kitchen at Babe's Bar & Grill in West Haverstraw on Thursday, December 3, 2020.

Restaurant and bar owners have railed against the curfew, first when it was set at 10 p.m. in November and again when it was relaxed to 11 p.m. in February.

Now, with casinos and bowling alleys getting a reprieve, the restaurant industry is questioning: Why not us?

“It’s not fair to not give us the opportunity, especially when we’ve followed everything to the letter of the law and especially when other venues like gyms and movie theaters can stay open past 11 p.m.,” said Anthony Accomando, chef and owner of Babe's Bar & Grill in West Haverstraw, Rockland County.

Marko Guzijan, owner of the Hudson Valley Food Hall in Beacon, Dutchess County, said he is willing to do whatever it takes to assist with mitigating the spread of COVID-19, but he doesn't understand the benefit to keeping the 11 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars.

He said while he is happy for the businesses who were released from the curfew, he would like an explanation as to why restaurants and bars are exempt.

"Bars and restaurants, we want to do the right thing," he said.

"You want to shut us down at 10, shut us down at 10 if it's the right thing … We'll do all the things you need, but it would just be nice if somewhere there would be a little bit of help."

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Restaurant owners outside New York City are set to get something of a reprieve on Friday, when the state will allow them to increase their maximum capacity to 75%, up from the current 50%.

New York is one of a number of states increasing dining capacity despite concerns from some epidemiologists, who point to CDC research suggesting the return of on-premises dining was associated with an increase in COVID-19 case growth.

But while many restaurant owners have come to accept the capacity restrictions, many have long questioned what good the curfew ,or an associated order requiring a food purchase with any alcoholic beverage, has done.

When asked about the curfew in February, Cuomo suggested it is meant to discourage late-night drinking, when people may get more inclined to ignore social distancing or mask-wearing mandates.

He noted the state's licensing system does not differentiate between bars and sit-down restaurants. If it did, he said he would be open to setting different curfews for bars and restaurants.

"The curfew is because when people tend to stay later and they’re just drinking, there are more gatherings, you can’t drink and wear a mask," Cuomo said in February. "That’s the point of the curfew."

Restaurant owners say they've complied with rules

Binghamton resident and food enthusiast Paul VanSavage.

Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association, said the state Department of Health is concerned lifting the curfew could lead to "bad behavior."

But Wexler said food and beverage establishments "have complied with every rule and regulation over the past year at great cost to them personally."

"They’ve demonstrated they can and will do what is required to protect the public health — they did this when the curfew was 10 p.m., they’re doing it with an 11 p.m. curfew, and they’ll do it without a curfew," he said.

Paul VanSavage, secretary for the Southern Tier Independent Restaurants, said the impact of the curfew depends on the type of establishment.

A fine-dining restaurant may stop serving dinner at 9 or 10 p.m. anyway. But other establishments serve late-night crowds, he said.

"If you’re a place who caters to later and sometimes a younger clientele, it has an impact," he said. "(It) varies from zero to a lot of impact.” 

VanSavage said he remains hopeful the rules for restaurants will soon be relaxed further.

“I’m very optimistic that the next round of decisions will include opening up from an operating hours standpoint,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the seating [capacity] will also open up.”

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Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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