Places

Dispatches From New York

March 25, 2020

Story: Priya Krishna

Art: Nick Hensley

Places

Dispatches From New York

March 25, 2020

Story: Priya Krishna

Art: Nick Hensley

Testimonials from bartenders, owners and community organizers in the wake of COVID-19.

Before Monday, March 16, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed restaurants and bars to close their doors except for takeout and delivery, the city was busy. Bar stools were filled. People spilled across sidewalks to eat brunch. It was as if the masses were insisting that life proceed as usual, despite the news that the spread of illness was progressing rapidly—that it was no longer safe to operate the way that we New Yorkers normally do. And then suddenly, every window of every watering hole was empty. It might have been the quietest St. Patrick’s Day the city has ever seen.

One very small bright spot for bars (and restaurants) is that they are now allowed to sell liquor for takeout. In response, some establishments have gotten creative, batching out their bestseller drinks into portable containers. But others have determined that even alcohol takeout may not be enough to save the business, and have shuttered preemptively, laying off staff in order for unemployment to be collected and insurance covered. As New York has become one of the epicenters of the crisis, most in the bar industry feel they’ve been given a choice: to keep fighting, or to capitulate and find another way to keep busy and make a living.

Santi Dady | Supervisor, PDT

One of New York’s first new-age speakeasies, PDT—hidden inside a hot dog spot, behind a telephone booth—was busy up until the call to close. Owner Jeff Bell is embracing the delivery/takeout model, batching some of the bar’s most famous cocktails and selling them out of YETI coolers.   

On Friday, what was shocking to me was how many young people were out, and also tons of parents with their kids. When New York has had blackouts, it was kind of fun to do things like go to a candlelit bar. But with this, it is a matter of public safety to be inside. So I was like, “What is wrong with you people?” but at the same time, we needed as much business as we could before shutting down. And I was expecting a shutdown.

We started brainstorming how to batch just the nonalcoholic parts and send people instructions on how to make cocktails. As soon as Cuomo announced that it was OK to do alcohol delivery, we ran with it. We used kegs that we bring out for festivals to store the cocktails, Jeff [Bell, PDT’s owner] went out to get bottles, and we began batching out 500 cocktails.

It has been going pretty well. Our sales have been like a slow night for us, which is better than nothing. Who knows if it will be enough for us to survive? But it feels better to do something than nothing. I don’t know what I am going to do after this because the unemployment page is crashing and I don’t have that much in reserve. The only way people are going to survive in this industry is to adapt really quickly, or move on.

Natasha David | Owner, Nitecap

Long an industry favorite, this basement bar closed voluntarily the day before the mandate. Owner Natasha David laid off her staff, including herself, and is in the process of trying to get short-term loans to keep the business alive. 

I am feeling hyperemotional right now because since we closed the bar on Sunday, I hadn’t been back because I have been letting it self-disinfect. I just now went back to clean everything out and go through the walk-in and it is a bit of a crazy feeling right now.

I have a father who lives in Rome, so I already kind of understood the gravity of the situation early on, but we all felt like being open was still really important to keep everyone’s spirits up. I have always been such a believer in bars being this safe space where people can come together and commiserate. With all the trauma this city has been through, bars have a history of being the gathering place. But as the situation progressed, it hit me that it was irresponsible for us to be open. I was putting my staff at risk.

We voluntarily closed on Sunday. We laid our staff off. I laid myself off. That is how it has been since. I don’t know if Nitecap is going to survive. We are a tiny, little bar. I am applying for every loan out there, and as of a few minutes ago, Cuomo announced they are delaying sales tax with no interest and that is huge. But 10 days ago, I never could have foreseen that I would be in the bar all alone.

Antonio Vilchis | Owner and manager at Mexicocina Agaveria in Brooklyn and Mexicocina in the Bronx

Antonio Vilchis’ regional Mexican spots have become beloved neighborhood hangouts for their ambitious food and the equal care given to cocktails. Vilchis was conducting business as usual until last week, when he switched to a delivery/takeout model. 

Before they announced that restaurants and bars had to switch to delivery and takeout only, the bars at the restaurants had dropped off a little. But I didn’t pay attention that much. People were ordering drinks, just not as much as before. Now that we are takeout and delivery, both our businesses have dropped off in a big way. We went out and got a bunch of plastic cups with seals for Margaritas, and quart containers for pitchers of Margaritas. People are ordering some food, but people are not drinking. We are not getting any orders for alcohol—maybe one a day. And alcohol sales are the key to our business.

I am going to wait until Sunday to see if we can keep going but if sales drop off by 60 percent, I don’t know if we can stay open. [At the time of publication, Mexicocina Agaveria in Brooklyn and Mexicocina in the Bronx remain open for takeout and delivery.] For bartenders and servers, I don’t know where they are going to end up. I don’t know how many bars are going to be able to reopen. I am just scared of the unknown. I am trying to keep positive and not let myself down. I don’t want to close down and go home and panic. I want to keep this place alive.

Ruairi Curtin | Co-owner, The Spaniard, The Bonnie, The Penrose, The Wren, Sweet Afton, Wilfie & Nell, Bua

Along with his partners David Mohally and Mark Gibson, Ruairi Curtin, an Ireland native, runs a collection of consistently packed bars across three different boroughs. Their initial plan was to lean into delivery and takeout, but realizing it would pose a danger to staff, they were forced to lay off 260 employees on St. Patrick’s Day.  

Three and a half weeks ago we were cautiously looking over our shoulders. We saw this on the horizon and started premeditating on it. We reached out to a food delivery consultant. A week and a half ago I did an interview with Eater where I said that our sales were up from the same time last year. But suddenly, when Monday came, you could feel something in the air. The severity of the situation became more apparent. My head was like a pinball machine. In one sentence, you are wondering how you are going to cut people’s hours, but in the next breath you are thinking that maybe the problem will be hanging onto staff because they are afraid to come into work.

When they announced the delivery and takeout order for restaurants, we came up with a plan to do takeout for both drinks and food at three locations. We ordered in thousands of plastic cups and lids and plastic straws. This was all new to us. I am currently standing in The Penrose looking at 20 boxes of plastic cups that we have to figure out what we are going to do with. So that tells you that we came to a realization this week that New York was becoming the hotbed of the situation and we had to keep our staff safe. We laid 260 people off on St. Patrick’s Day, which is very ironic, especially with me being Irish and St. Patrick’s Day essentially being a national drinking day. My feelings change from one minute to the next. We feel like we failed our people, but we know we are doing this for the right reasons and there was no option at the end of the day. I am happy with the decision we made, but so upset for our employees. Maybe after this is all over, we will all have more humility.