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Bellmore-Merrick bars adjust to new state regulation

Purchase of alcohol now requires ordering food

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The bar industry has taken another hit with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s most recent measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The regulation, which prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages without the purchase of a food item, has added pressure on local bars and restaurants across Bellmore-Merrick that continue to adapt amid the pandemic.

On July 17, an executive order by the New York State Liquor Authority deemed that restaurants, taverns and bars could not serve alcohol to patrons without the purchase of acceptable food items, including sandwiches, soups or other foods of “quality and substance.” Candy, nuts and chips are considered “insufficient” under these guidelines. Cuomo enacted the rule in an effort to cut down on crowded bars, which, without social distancing, could jeopardize New York’s progress in preventing a second wave of coronavirus cases.

At the Newbridge Inn on Jerusalem Avenue, owner Gary Francke said the new rule has made it more difficult to do business. “People can't even come for a beer after work because I have to shove food down their throat,” he said.

For Francke, ensuring the safety of his customers is personal — he lost one of his cooks and two loyal customers to Covid-19, and experienced the severity of the virus himself after contracting it this past spring.

He recently reopened the pub for indoor and outdoor dining after installing dividers between seats and reminding customers to wear their masks. “We’re trying to keep people safe and healthy, but sometimes these new regulations just make it tougher unnecessarily,” he said. “I understand getting rid of those crowded bars on TV, but you’re hurting the small, local pubs, taverns and restaurants by doing this.”

The pandemic has created many obstacles for Lynn Mione, the owner of Vine Wine Bar on Merrick Road, but the biggest has been the requirement of serving food. “We have a very small kitchen that’s been under a lot of pressure,” she said. “It’s been difficult getting food cranked out.”

“We are a small, cozy, romantic wine bar,” she added. “It’s not a place where customers socialize with strangers as much as they socialize with people in their own party. It’s not a place where people have to stand three rows deep to get a drink.”

The wine bar is still in the hiring process to replace employees that left because of the virus, adding to the challenge of serving food in an establishment known for wine and spirits. And with profits down 50 percent from last year, Mione said the last thing she needs is to be penalized for not following the rules — businesses found in violation of Covid-19 regulations can face fines up to $10,000 per violation.

Tejan Arora, who owns Street to Table in Merrick, has been confronted with a similar issue. “My kitchen is tiny,” he said. “We have incredible staff in the back that can turn out orders fairly quickly, but when things get busy, it gets difficult to prepare even a small order of fries to accommodate a drink order.”

Generally, Arora said, customers understand and respect the rule. But some frustrated patrons end up canceling or not ordering at all after staff members tell them how long it may take to prepare their order. “It keeps people waiting around longer than necessary,” he said.

For Merokean John Amaruso, who opened Bourbon & Brews in Merrick last August, business is better than ever. “It was either adapt or die,” he said. The owner used quarantine to gain momentum in the community through local charity drives. By donating part of his profits to the town’s fire departments and fellow businesses, he has gained support of local patrons.

"Bars have been through a lot, and I’ve personally been through a lot to open this bar,” he said, adding that he is grateful to his customers who are accepting of the new rules. “It's survival of the fittest, and I give a lot of credit to bar owners who are adapting every day to meet these regulations. We’ll be stronger at the end of it.”