Long Island’s family-owned and independently-run restaurants feel like they just can’t get a break.
First, they were forced to close in March for sit-down dining due to state coronavirus containment measures. Takeout and curbside pickup options were soon allowed, but most didn’t offer their own delivery service.
To scrape by and stay relevant, many restaurants desperately turned to food delivery companies, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, which take about a 30 percent cut from orders in Suffolk County.
Now, as the already struggling eateries and bars began to ease into servicing its customers with limited indoor/outdoor seating in June, the owners feel like they have become constant targets by New York State, according to a group of restaurant owners who gathered at Drift 82 in Patchogue Wednesday.
Among their biggest gripes with the state:
- New York State Liquor Authority agents demanding to enter places of businesses during closed hours.
- Repeat inspection visits to the same locations as much as four to six times a week.
- Constant confusion and volatility when it comes to the exact protocols of what is and isn’t allowed at dining establishments.
These were some of the complaints restaurant owners rattled off at the meeting, where they collectively called the state’s actions “above and beyond proper enforcement” when it comes to its new policing of restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic.
The event also attracted community members, local business leaders and elected officials from several levels of government.
“We know that enforcement is necessary, and we are here to do our part,” said James Bonanno, president of the Patchogue Restaurant Committee and co-owner of The Tap Room locations in Patchogue, Bay Shore, and Massapequa. “From the get-go, our first priority has been to keep the public safe.”
While New York’s infection rates — which have steadily been at 1 percent or less — are the lowest numbers since June, the state continues to come down hard on downstate’s Main Streets, the restaurant owners said.
The state dolled out 37 new summonses on Friday to downstate locations alone.
“As time went on, we feel like it’s been borderline harassment, where, especially in Patchogue, [enforcement] is coming in every day or every other day,” Bonanno said.
Note: Greater Long Island Media Group has reached out to representatives of the governor, who say they are putting together responses to the restauranteurs’ concerns.
The owners of Dublin Deck in Patchogue, which made headlines for packing out the bar during the shutdown, said they apologized for their early on actions, paid their fines, but there’s still no easing up by the SLA.
“We made a mistake in the beginning,” said Scottie Campbell, a co-owner at Dublin Deck. “We owned up to it, and we made a lot of changes — but the SLA still comes to my place at least three times a week.”
The restaurant owners, especially with popular places in vibrant downtowns like Patchogue and Bay Shore, were clear with what they want: direction and consistency.
“I feel like they are coming to the little places that are trying to comply and are nitpicking,” LI restaurateur Mike McElwee told GreaterPatchogue.com.
“The rules change every day,” adds McElwee, who co-owns two Local Burger Co. locations in Patchogue and Bay Shore, as well as Penny Pub and T.J. Finley’s. “Whether you can have food, or what is even considered enough food.”
McElwee was pointing to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rule that “substantial food” must be ordered with meals in order to receive alcoholic beverages.
“I had a couple who ate at a next-door restaurant that wanted to have a quick drink with friends and I have to force them to order something to eat,” explained McElwee. “And they were sitting, wearing masks and socially distant.”
With the colder months around the corner, the group asked the state officials in attendance what’s the latest on expanding indoor seating capacity. Will there be a Phase 5 of New York’s reopening plan?
Currently, New York allows 50 percent capacity for indoor dining.
No answers were available.
As far as consistency goes, these Main Street restaurants want to know why they are being proverbially crucified while big businesses, such as Costco and The Home Depot, are filled daily with customers, or even why restaurants not in bustling areas aren’t being put under the microscope.
“I am getting harassed, but it is not consistent for everyone,” said Mike Lauria, co-owner of Rudi’s Bar & Grill in Medford, who has been slapped with fines. “We’re fed up.”
State Senator Monica Martinez spoke up to decry the actions of some SLA enforcers after a first-hand experience.
“Not only were they nasty, but they were giving out violations that weren’t even truthful,” she said, after frequenting a place in Bay Shore.
“It is unacceptable.”
Photo: James Bonanno of The Tap Room speaking at Wednesday morning’s meeting at Drift 82 in Patchogue to decry the nature of the governor’s COVID enforcement efforts.