Closing time pushed to midnight starting Monday - Table Hopping

Closing time pushed to midnight starting Monday

Here’s some relief for the hospitality industry, courtesy my Capitol Bureau colleague Edward McKinley:

The curfew for bars and restaurants licensed to sell alcohol will be pushed back an hour, from 11 p.m. to midnight, starting on Monday (4/19), Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

The governor also said that horse races will be able to host crowds up to 20 percent of capacity starting next Friday. Other sporting events in New York have been open to the public for vaccinated people or those who present negative tests from within three days of the event for weeks.

The move comes as the COVID-19 rate remains low, with a 2.97 percent positivity rate reported Wednesday and 43 deaths. The seven-day average is 3.1 percent, the lowest in a month, and almost 40 percent — 5 million — of New Yorkers have been fully vaccinated thus far.

Republicans in the Legislature have advocated for Cuomo to lift the curfew on bars and restaurants as well as the requirement that people buy food when they purchase a drink. Cuomo did not discuss that restriction, so it will remain in place. Cuomo did say that the curfew for catered events, which is currently 12 a.m., will be pushed back to 1 a.m.

What I said in my Table Hopping newsletter on April 1 bears repeating.

The change will come two weeks after the state rolled back mandatory closing times on casinos. But this still means that restaurants selling alcohol in casinos must close at midnight, which defies logic: If the government’s stance is that indoor dining is safe enough to be permissible, with masks and distancing required, until midnight but not later, that should apply to other indoor gathering spots like casinos, movie theaters and gyms. As of Monday, they’re suddenly OK at 12:01 a.m. and beyond, but restaurants aren’t?

It’s long past time for a rethinking of the incrementalism that has gone into the state’s reopening of restaurants. Yes, the hard braking that went on early in the pandemic was necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I’ll even concede that the requirement, introduced last summer, of food being ordered with initial drink orders was smart. For colleagues wanting an afternoon beer, it likely seemed heavy-handed. But seen in the context of, say, Saratoga Springs’ Caroline Street during track season, it made sense: Without the food requirement, two couples could have a couple of drinks at four or five successive places with no food to slow them down, encountering other groups of four or six successively along the way, and by the end everybody’s sufficiently lubricated to ignore safety protocols. The food rule impeded such behavior.

The 10 p.m. curfew implemented in November, as the winter resurgence grew, still seems excessive, as it further cut income for an industry that’s been among the hardest hit in the nation. Closing time wasn’t extended to 11 p.m. until Valentine’s Day — a Sunday, meaning that on the two or three preceding days, when many were celebrating with restaurant meals, staff still had to kick out patrons by 10 p.m.

Under current rules, people who get food when they first sit down can continue to drink until closing, without having to eat more. I acknowledge that if closing is rolled back to 1, 2 or the original 4 a.m. allowed by the state, some will continue to drink, and safety measures won’t be followed as conscientiously.

That’s problematic at a time when the majority of local residents still have not been vaccinated. According to the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, an average of 45 percent of people in the Capital Region’s four core counties have received at least one vaccination; there’s still a ways to go to achieve the desired herd immunity.

But it should not be at the expense of a valuable part of our economic, cultural and social life. If people want to stay home, they are free to do so, and some choose to: In a February poll on the Table Hopping blog about attitudes toward restaurant curfews, 12 percent said they believed in-house dining should be banned until “until the majority of a region’s residents are vaccinated.” On the other hand, 36 percent of the poll’s 341 respondents said the state should immediately again permit 4 a.m. closing times. (Counties have always been allowed to impose earlier mandatory closings, but none locally do.) And 7 percent of poll respondents said they didn’t care, because “who stays out until 11 anyway?”

So, Gov. Cuomo, closing time needs to be extended further, preferably until the original 4 a.m. Surely there won’t be a rush by more than a few bars to keep the lights on that late. But they should have the option.

Steve Barnes