State Clarifies Rules To Ban Concerts In Bars And Clubs During Pandemic

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New guidelines from the New York State Liquor Authority will prevent clubs like the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett from presenting live music for which there is a cover charge or tickets sold. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Even as New York State takes steps to ease off on restrictions that were put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including curtailing public gatherings and forcing businesses deemed nonessential to close, the State Liquor Authority last week quietly announced measures that will likely put the kibosh on live music in bars and clubs until the pandemic recedes.

The SLA contacted bars and restaurants to let them know that while background music, such as that provided by a piano player, is allowed as an “incidental” part of the business’s offerings, it cannot be the main attraction, such as a concert for which there is a cover charge or ticket sales.

“This guidance is not new — live entertainment activities, including all ticketed events, have been prohibited since New York went on pause in mid-March to stop the spread of coronavirus,” said a statement provided by William Crowley of the SLA’s public affairs office. “Thanks to New Yorkers’ hard work, we have achieved, and so far maintained, one of the lowest rates of infection in the country, but these high-risk gatherings would create exactly the situation we are trying to avoid, where people congregate, mingle, and create congestion at points of ingress and egress.”

The SLA was prompted to act “after seeing an increase in establishments advertising ticketed events,” the statement continued. “The SLA clarified language on its website and proactively emailed all bars and restaurants to ensure they were aware of the months-old restrictions. New Yorkers need to remember we are still fighting a global pandemic —and with dozens of states facing outbreaks, we must continue to take the threat of spreading COVID at mass gatherings seriously.”

The crackdown came at a bad time for the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. The tiny club has featured the live music of both up-and-coming performers as well as established acts for decades, and only last month began to offer live music again after being closed during the early part of the pandemic.

Instead of trying to socially distance patrons inside the club, the Talkhouse bought video equipment and had bands play inside, while the audience watched on screens outside. “People have been bored and stir-crazy, and even though they weren’t in the room where the band was playing, they’d come with friends because it gave them something to do,” he said.

The arrangement also gave people a chance to “support their friends, the artists,” he added. “This whole thing has not only been difficult on us, it has been difficult on the artists. They have been starving.” Bartenders and waiters also benefited by being able to make some money, he said.

Mr. Honerkamp said he heard about the SLA’s clarification of the rules from a band that was scheduled to play, and after checking with an attorney the club uses for SLA issues, decided to cancel all scheduled events.

He said it was his understanding the SLA acted because of the activities of bars in upstate cites like Syracuse, not because of disregard of the rules on eastern Long Island. State officials strongly chastised Southampton Town after it allowed a concert by the Chainsmokers, at which a number of attendees disregarded social distancing and mask-wearing requirements. The state and the town are continuing to investigate that event.

“I don’t know when we are going to be able to have live music again,” Mr. Honerkamp said. “Live music venues are closing all across the United States. I think you are going to see a lot of places going out of business.”

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