Editors Note: An op-ed from City Winery founder Michael Dorf that was originally run in Crain’s New York Business and reprinted here with permission.
Behind Bars – By Michael Dorf
I understand the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and bars and restaurants. There is a difference between a sit-down experience and standing one. Like the difference between listening to a classical concert from a grass picnic pod and a raging mosh pit of a hardcore band.
I have owned venues with bars and the subsequent liquor licenses for over 35 years across the country. Alcohol is served in stadiums, music venues, airports, and is a way of life, not to mention, employment for millions of Americans. From the age of 21 to 30, most young people use the mix of alcohol, standing, and partying as their primary means of socialization. COVID-19 has changed that, and since March 15th for most of Smart America, we have stopped serving.
But I am frustrated to continuously hear from elected officials that we need to “shut down all bars if we are going to re-open schools and our economy”. No, that is not what we need to do. Governor Cuomo has smartly seen a distinction in NYC, between sit-down restaurants that serve food and encourage social distancing and standing bars that seem to disregard public safety. But I’m supportive and behind bars that are cognizant of the challenges of keeping their staff and patrons safe and who are desperately trying to stay alive. There is a balance that can be achieved between professionally operated spaces and fools who don’t serve right (pardon the pun, I didn’t mean, we don’t serve the right, which seem to follow Trump’s disregard for mask wearing and all that symbolizes). The SLA seems to be able to enforce 21+, no smoking rules, etc.. which our society needs and the power of sanction, especially the lifeblood of holding an on-premise liquor license, certainly must be used to enforce the law. As Cuomo said, there should be “no tolerance for illegal and reckless endangerment of public health”.
So, we need to quickly establish laws that stop super spreader events like the Chainsmokers event in the Hamptons that took advantage of the “drive-in” concept of a concert. But don’t stop all musical events because some people disregard the rules. We need safe outdoor concerts today that people can enjoy safely. Musicians need the ecosystem of live music desperately which for some is their only source of revenue. We need to urgently find ways to create safe environments for limited capacity, safe, and professional places people can sit, eat, drink and listen to music. The blanket restriction of NO LIVE MUSIC has given rise to a growing, unsupervised, at-home backyard concert culture, which is counterproductive to our critical public health and economic goals. Let us professional, responsible, holders of liquor licenses take on the challenging business of live music which we have built our careers doing. We need to be smart about the re-opening of our world, but it does need to re- open before our industry and all of live entertainment is dead. Put people who disregard the rules behind bars, but don’t kill all bars!