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Governor: Bars must serve food

Local taverns handle rule differently, but many are frustrated

Food at the Rusty Nail bar in Saranac Lake includes bags of potato chips and pork rinds, left, but also hot dogs and, coming soon, chicken cutlets. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

A shot of Jameson, a pint of Fiddlehead IPA, a Slim Jim. That’s what’s ordering at a local bar looked like this week, after a sudden ruling from Gov. Andrew Cuomo last Thursday, July 16 required that bars and restaurants serve food items with all alcohol sales.

The move came as a surprise to businesses, many of which had only recently reopened after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March. The new ruling has further complicated operations that have been struggling to adjust to physical distancing rules, and to ensure that customers wear masks unless seated and that tables as well as separate parties remain 6 feet apart.

“I’ve spent 45 years in this business, and I’m pissed,” said Bruce Thompson, owner of the Rusty Nail bar in Saranac Lake, as he pulled a pint at the bar he’s owned for nearly a half a century. A mask obscured his mustache but not the anger and frustration in his eyes. “It’s getting like a local person can’t survive.”

At least the Rusty Nail has a small kitchen and thus the capacity to make food, which many bars don’t have. Thompson also has a hot dog machine, a silver box prominently lodged on the bar’s wooden counter, and it was going strong on a recent midday as regulars lined the bar, bags of chips resolutely paired with their cocktails.

Cuomo said the statewide move was due to concerns about groups gathering at bars and restaurants without appropriate COVID-19 safety measures. “No food? Then no alcohol,” Cuomo said at the news briefing announcing the restrictions, which went into effect on Friday, July 17.

Executive order 202.52 states that alcoholic beverages must be accompanied by “food items” purchased at the same time as the drinks for each person in a seated party. Such items include “sandwiches, soups or other such foods,” including hot dogs, wings and salads. The order further clarifies that “a bag of chips, bowl of nuts or candy alone” do not qualify. This has made the ruling particularly difficult, confusing and deeply frustrating for the many bars not equipped with kitchens. Many bar owners and bartenders, scrambling to adjust to the new rules, declined to discuss their situation with a reporter.

Thompson, who painted and upgraded his bar in the weeks when it was closed, said he’s bringing back his chicken cutlets and will also start serving small platters of snacks. But the lack of clarity on the rules was frustrating, he said, staring mournfully at the pool table in the center of the bar, covered with a picnic tablecloth and a potted plant.

“People are just going to stay home and watch TV,” Thompson said.

At the Belvedere, a recently introduced lunch menu is served at the bar, allowing for patrons to order meatball sandwiches with their drinks. Grizle-T’s bar has its own restaurant, the Scullery, with a full menu including chopped salads and smashburgers. In Lake Placid, Zig Zags Pub has come up with a particularly inventive solution, offering 50-cent White Castle cheeseburgers and cups of house-made gazpacho soup with a folded menu printed with a pointed message of compliance with Cuomo’s “latest executive order.”

Raquette River Brewing in Tupper Lake doesn’t have a kitchen, but it has had food trucks parked next to the brewery since the year after it opened in 2013, which has made the new order easier to enforce.

“Most people come for both food and drinking,” said co-owner Mark Jessie. “If people want to come in and simply have a beer, then we require that they buy a couple bags of chips.” Raquette River has kept its 3,000-square-foot beer hall closed, opting to serve people outside at its many picnic tables. A hostess seats patrons, first handing them menus for the two food trucks.

“One guy didn’t want to wear a mask for a minute,” said Jessie, “but his family shamed him into it.”

“It’s not really a big problem for breweries,” said Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association, as breweries have always had to offer food. “It’s always been part of the licensing, whether it’s a bag of pretzels or a food truck.”

Having food as well as drinks on the menu can be pragmatic. “People tend to stay longer if there’s food,” said Leone. “The difference is that now they actually have to buy it.”

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