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New York's new bar scene: alfresco drinking on the sidewalk

Jun 19, 2020 5:50 AM

New York

TONY Auliano and his wife, Melinda Lantz, stood, drinks in hand, outside the Factory 380, an Andy Warhol-themed bar on Third Avenue in Manhattan, on a recent Friday night. Mr Auliano, 63, would have rather have been inside the bar, which, like many in New York City these days, is selling drinks to go. But he was happy for any social interaction he could get.

"This is a good thing," he said, "an opportunity to communicate, come out, have a drink."

Ms Lantz, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital who has worked nonstop since Covid-19 took hold of the city, agreed - so much that she recently invited her co-workers to join her. "I actually hosted an informal and unapproved happy hour on the sidewalk two weeks ago," said Ms Lantz, 59. "I had all my staff come and anyone who wanted to drink. They felt great. It was like a turning point for my department."

Of all the New York City businesses impatiently awaiting for official permission to reopen, bars arguably face the biggest challenges. Every aspect of their appeal - large crowds in small spaces, close contact with strangers, mouths constantly open to drink or talk - runs contrary to the watchful guidelines that frame conduct during the pandemic.

That concern has been borne out in recent weeks as patrons have moved outdoors, congregating in large numbers in neighbourhoods, like Hell's Kitchen, with a high concentration of bars. Over the weekend, a video on social media of tightly packed throngs of young drinkers on an East Village street drew a Twitter message from Governor Andrew M Cuomo, threatening to intervene: "Don't make me come down there," he warned.

In some neighbourhoods, residents have complained to the police about the hazards, noise and even the public urination that outdoor crowds can bring. Fines have been issued.

But in other parts of the city, the groups have been smaller, and bar owners are trying to strike a balance between their business interests and public safety.

In March, the state threw bars a lifeline by allowing them to sell to-go drinks; owners grabbed onto it, first haltingly, then with gusto. Today, there is a barely a block, it seems, without a bar handing cocktails, wine and beer through its front door or window.

The general rule for such service is "take out, don't hang out". But patrons, thirsty not only for an adult beverage but also for the social experience they associate with it, aren't always heeding that. From Murray Hill to Cobble Hill, the city's bar scene has turned inside out: outdoor drinking has replaced indoor drinking, with groups of friends socialising on the sidewalk in front of their chosen watering hole, perching on fire hydrants, stoops or chairs provided by the bars.

Kevin Bradford, an owner of Harlem Hops, a beer bar on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, said he understood why his customers might want to linger a bit. "These people have been cooped up so long," he said. By early June, "the regular people who used to get deliveries opted to walk to the place."

Bars have become creative in trying to keep their impromptu street trade safe. Signs requiring or at least imploring patrons to wear masks are posted everywhere, and sidewalks are marked with chalk or tape to show how people in line should space themselves. But as the crowds grow, proper social distancing is not always possible. Ernesto's Café, on the Lower East Side, encourages customers to use the park across the street. Patrons of Grand Army, in Brooklyn, have been using closed-off State Street as a patio. And the Factory 380 will send customers on an around-the-block "walktail" stroll.

Amid the uncertainty fostered by the pandemic, every week seems like a new world for bars. While a bill before the Legislature could extend the life of the new policy allowing to-go service, the large street gatherings, or a rise in Covid cases, could prompt an edict to halt takeout.

But just as New York residents and bars have quickly become used to the freedom of drinks to go, they may not want to let go of citywide alfresco drinking, even when it's no longer necessary as an economic alternative for bars. "For the record," said David Kuhl, 35, standing with a group of friends outside the Factory 380 one balmy evening, "we prefer this." NYTIMES