ALBANY — The state has released guidance for what kinds of food will meet the new requirements for serving food with alcoholic beverages at restaurants and bars.
The list of acceptable foods includes sandwiches, soup, cheese, fruits, vegetables, chocolates, breads, mustards and crackers. Salads, wings and hotdogs also make the list, but a bag of chips, bowl of nuts and candy do not.
Under an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, effective July 17, restaurants and bars were permitted to serve alcohol to patrons who also purchase food. The requirement was imposed in an attempt to discourage gatherings at bars and to encourage social distancing to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus.
Thousands of complaints were filed with Cuomo’s office that businesses and patrons were not complying with face covering and social distancing requirements, particularly in downstate regions.
“The purpose of the requirement that food be sold with alcohol is to permit outside and limited indoor dining (outside of New York City), with alcoholic beverages, while restricting the congregating and mingling that arise in a bar service/drinking-only environment,” according to the State Liquor Authority website.
Indoor dining remains prohibited in New York City.
The food-drink mandate led to some restaurants and bars attempting to meet the requirement by serving so-called “Cuomo Chips,” but under the new guidelines released by the State Liquor Authority, that won’t be enough.
The goal is for patrons to have a sit-down dining experience that includes alcoholic beverages, but not a drinking, bar-type experience, according to the State Liquor Authority.
Jeffrey Hunt, president and CEO of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, expressed concerns that the new rules put additional pressure on businesses already struggling to reopen their doors and keep them open.
“It places some undue burden on restaurants and bars. They are still trying to recover and alcohol is where they get their profit margin,” Hunt said. “I understand why the governor did it; he is trying to prevent spread of the virus. But now that it is clarified, you need food to serve the entire table if it is indoors. I think that every week we get different guidelines and it is hard for businesses to adjust.”
Local businesses are trying to find ways to meet the new requirements, Hunt said.
“I think our businesses are just trying to survive, so they are trying to figure out how to do this and maintain some semblance of normality,” Hunt said. “It’s difficult, but it is something we need to go through to contain the spread. Our businesses have been very adaptable to doing what needs to be done during the various reopening phases.”
The new requirement closes a loophole and should not pose an undue burden on businesses, Greene County Chamber of Commerce President and Executive Director Jeffrey Friedman said.
“If they are doing the right thing, it shouldn’t affect them at all,” Friedman said. “If the restaurants and bars in the area have been operating under the guidelines in the phased reopening plan, then this shouldn’t have a material effect on their operations. All the governor did was close a loophole and tightened up the guidance.”
Friedman acknowledged the mandate will present more of a challenge for some businesses, though.
“Does it place a little more of a burden? Probably, but the spirit of the reopening was not to reopen bars, it was for restaurants, and their bars could reopen as well. The bottom line is, social mingling, especially without masks and social distancing, will potentially lead to a rise in cases and that is what is trying to be avoided here.”
The question of what types of foods meet the new requirement was raised during Monday’s video conference call of the Columbia Comeback Committee, which is co-chaired by Hunt, and is helping businesses in Columbia County reopen after the mid-March statewide coronavirus shutdown.
During the call, New Lebanon Town Supervisor Tistrya Houghtling expressed concern that the requirement would adversely affect local businesses.
“We do have some locations here in New Lebanon who feel they are going to be negatively affected by this new requirement, seeing as how they are already struggling to make ends meet as it is,” Houghtling said.
The need for the mandate was spurred by events downstate that did not occur locally, Houghtling said.
“I do understand the necessity for it came from events that were occurring in New York City, and obviously there wasn’t a differentiation in the executive order,” Houghtling said. “It seems to be statewide, even in towns like New Lebanon, where there weren’t large gatherings at bars.”
Houghtling also inquired about enforcing the new laws keeping businesses of all kinds open. The New Lebanon town offices receive complaints from local residents about businesses that do not appear to comply with the governor’s executive orders, but there is confusion over which agency is tasked with enforcing the rules.
“Everyone seems to be passing the buck when there are concerns raised by residents about some businesses in town not being in compliance and possibly putting health and safety at risk,” Houghtling said.
“It is important that there is clarity as far as where the responsibility for enforcement falls,” she said.
Hunt hopes enforcement will be handled at the local level rather than from the state, but that he would seek further details on the issue.
The executive orders have created local enforcement difficulties, Houghtling said.
“The town hasn’t been given a lot of enforcement power, and while we are happy to have conversations, if you have a business that just says no — we understand the requirements but we are not following it — the town doesn’t have much in the way of teeth.”
Cuomo has called on local law enforcement and municipalities to handle the enforcement of the requirements with regard to businesses reopening safely.
“I understand enforcement is less politically popular,” Cuomo said last week. “I’ll tell you what’s less politically popular: If we had to [re]close down a region.”