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. 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.”
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 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 neighborhoods, 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 Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, threatening to intervene: “Don’t make me come down there,” he warned.
In some neighborhoods, 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 socializing on the sidewalk in front of their chosen watering hole, perching on fire hydrants, stoops or chairs provided by the bars.
At some bars, business has been slow to return. When the 166-year-old McSorley’s Old Ale House, in the East Village, started selling its famous dark and light ales to go, in mid-March, it attracted little business and shut down after a few days. “Nobody was coming,” said Gregory de la Haba, who operates the bar. “It seemed too high a risk and not worth the headache.”
Once the weather warmed and more people hit the streets, the bar gave it another shot. The customers showed, and stayed. “I knew every single person that came,” de la Haba said. “What was beautiful was to see all my neighbors, who came over to say, ‘It’s so great to see you open.’”
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.”
When citywide protests over the killing of George Floyd began, and Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed an 8 p.m. curfew, the bar crowds dwindled, and some bars closed altogether for a time. But in the days since the curfew was lifted on June 6, they have returned in full force.
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. By the time they make the circuit, they’re ready for another round.
Observing safety guidelines while not alienating customers can be tricky. “You ask them to move, they’ll move,” said John Hayes, the owner of Doc Watson’s, on the Upper East Side. “But they’re not going to disappear. You don’t want the last thing they remember is you chased them away.”
For bars, whose business models have turned upside-down since the shutdown began, adjust and adapt is the name of the game. Basquiat’s Bottle, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, was an art- and nightlife-oriented place before COVID-19, going into the wee hours. It’s now open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and has had increased food sales.
Before the shutdown, Harlem Hops sold two to three crowlers a week (a crowler is like a growler, but in jumbo-can format). Now it sells 30 to 35 a day.
Just as bar owners are figuring out the new landscape as they go, the people they serve have discovered new advantages to the arrangement.
“During this time of year, sometimes I prefer an outside bar or rooftop, or a place by the water,” said Robert Cabo, 29, an architect and a regular at the Factory 380. “Now, because this is happening, I have no reason not to come here.”
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.”