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New York Bar Owners Brace For State Oversight During Reopening

Phase3-Bars superspot

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) - Bars are beginning to open back up as regions around upstate New York enter the later phases of reopening. The opportunity to seat customers indoors, however, comes with a heavy charge on bar owners.

It’s up to them to make sure patrons follow the rules. If not, they put their liquor license in jeopardy.

Dan Wilcox owns The Office Pool and Libations in Corning. His pool tables, however, are closed, and there’s tape on the floor spaced six-feet apart. Wilcox said new signs communicating social distancing rules are on the way.

Governor Andrew Cuomo put the onus on bar owners to make sure all patrons follow the rules, from wearing masks to social distancing. Through a recent executive order, Cuomo extended bar owners’ responsibility to the areas outside and surrounding their businesses.

“It really is all my responsibility," Wilcox said. "They pretty much set the guidelines, set the rules, and then it’s up to us as businesses to put those into effect and make sure that people are following them, which has been the biggest challenge."

Since reopening, Wilcox doubled his payroll, adding more staff members to keep an eye on patrons. Still, even at below half of his normal occupancy, it’s still difficult to control customers. According to Wilcox, customers can be less aware of the rules and themselves as they consume alcohol.

“Here I am having to tell them all, ‘Excuse sir, you need to put your mask on in order to walk over there,’” Wilcox said. “You do that over and over and over again and you hope you catch it all, but you know, it’s just difficult.”

Many of Wilcox’s customers come to The Office to play pool, but new state guidelines require bar-goers to be seated at all times. Wilcox said he had no choice but to close his pool tables, much to his customers’ dismay. To keep his liquor license, Wilcox can’t have any grey areas in his operation.

“My liquor license is my livelihood, without it, I can’t operate,” Wilcox said. “The harder people make that for me to follow, the less chances I’m going to be successful in doing so.”

Wilcox said part of him wants to draw summer crowds to his bar to make up the revenue he lost while closed under state orders. Crowds out of proportion, however, could put his liquor license at risk, or serve as the site of an outbreak.

In Rochester, public health officials issued a public notice about a positive potential COVID-19 exposure at one bar, now under investigation by the New York State Liquor Authority.

Earlier in June, Governor Cuomo expanded powers of the New York State Liquor Authority so they can shut down any bar or restaurant violating state reopening rules. As of mid-June, 18 businesses had their liquor license suspended, including eight in upstate New York. At least two have paid $10,000 fines to reinstate the license.

Wilcox said many of his customers disagree with the state’s efforts to curb COVID-19, including the statewide requirement of masks in public spaces. Their decision to wear a mask or not, however, jeopardizes Wilcox’s business.

“Everyone’s got that opinion, but it’s only me that’s got that liquor license,” Wilcox said.