State order targets liquor licenses
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said he “does not embrace the authoritarian style of getting people to pay attention” in response to an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatening to suspend the liquor licenses of businesses that violate rules meant to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 infections.
The order, signed by the governor on June 18, makes bars, restaurants, convenience stores and retailers responsible for customers who consume alcohol, not only inside their establishments but within 100 feet of the door. In addition to having their licenses suspended or revoked if customers are found violating social-distancing protocols, the businesses could be fined up to $10,000 per violation.
Days before issuing the executive order, Cuomo said the state had received 25,000 complaints online or through a toll-free phone number about businesses not following reopening guidelines, which include rules on maintaining 6 feet of space between customers and face coverings for them and employees.
The governor specifically named the Hamptons and Manhattan as “the leading areas in the state with violations.”
The state has forwarded an average of 17 complaints a week to Dutchess County about violations, but Molinaro described most as “misunderstandings” about the guidance on face coverings.
Ron Hicks, the assistant county executive, reviews each complaint with the sheriff’s office and the county’s emergency response department, sending them to the appropriate municipality. Dutchess has “always gotten compliance by communicating,” Molinaro said on Monday (June 22).
“We have not seen in Dutchess County any notable or outright effort to ignore the guidance,” he said. “Yes, there are always areas of concern, but overall Dutchess County residents have embraced the guidance and we’re seeing that in results.”
In a letter about Cuomo’s order posted on the State Liquor Authority’s website, its chair, Vincent Bradley, said the agency has received an “inordinate number of complaints and police referrals from across the state regarding large gatherings, social distancing violations and patrons not wearing face coverings.”
A “disproportionate number” of the complaints were about “customers buying alcoholic drinks and then hanging out and drinking alcoholic beverages outside of businesses,” he said.
“Instead of operating real takeout and delivery service, licensees are using this privilege to operate the equivalent of an unlawful outdoor bar, with patrons lining up in clusters to be served and congregating outside to consume,” Bradley said.
Anthony Ruggiero, Beacon’s city administrator, said the city has received “one or two” complaints that were referred to the building department.
In Putnam, Shawn Rogan, the county’s director of environmental services, said during a meeting of the Legislature’s Health Committee on June 16 that his office, along with code enforcement officers and local police, have responded to “many complaints, not only in restaurants but in many different businesses” about a lack of social distancing.
He said the county talks to the business owners, urging them to follow state rules, and follows up with additional inspections.
“We’re hoping we don’t ever have to go to the level of requiring an enforcement action,” Rogan said. “We have that tool, but we get very good results with our education-based approach.”
Regina Bei, who co-owns the Hudson House River Inn in Cold Spring, said bars and restaurants should be cautious about following the rules because “none of us want to go through this again. There’s things we’ve loved that the governor’s done and there’s things we’ve hated. But we have to claim responsibility — we have to, or I am so sure we’ll end up where we started.”
Even before Cuomo’s order, the State Liquor Authority had suspended the licenses of a few establishments that opened before they were allowed, including the Hudson Brewing Co. in Hudson. In response to complaints, state investigators visited on May 22 and said they observed “27 people drinking on and in proximity to the brewery, some near the entrance and others tailgating.”
A New Rochelle pizzeria, Metapan Pizzeria Ristorante, also had its liquor licenses suspended after local police visited on May 9 and found people drinking beer around a pool table.
Investigators from the State Liquor Authority will not only be responding to complaints but “conducting routine compliance checks,” Bradley said. The state also has a task force responding to complaints about businesses violating social-distancing guidelines, he said.
“You may not know when your premises are under observation in connection with an investigation,” Bradley said.