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Crackdown on bar crowd size could be followed by pulling liquor licenses

Bar owners in Erie County were warned early Sunday afternoon that the authorities might be stopping by.

A couple of hours later, police were going door to door at bars on West Chippewa Street in Buffalo.

"There's no way you're not over" the mandated limit on crowd size, Buffalo Police Central District Chief Dawn Kent told employees at 67 West at about 2:30 p.m. after she looked around the establishment.

With the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Erie County, enforcement efforts began to ensure bars complied with reduced capacity standards imposed due to concern over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said during a news conference that the county would be sending out public health sanitarians to check on bars' compliance.

The county executive said he was sent pictures of some establishments Saturday night that showed crowds of people gathering despite recommendations from health officials not to gather in large groups in order to limit the spread of the virus.

Every bar "should go under the assumption someone might stop by," Poloncarz said. "And if they stop by and they find that you’re violating the law, they will write you up."

Poloncarz enacted a state of emergency at noon Sunday, a day after testing confirmed the county's first three cases of COVID-19.

Establishments have been told to limit their capacity to half the number of people they are typically allowed to have inside. For example, bars authorized for a capacity of 100 may now only have 50 people.

Public health sanitarians have the ability to immediately shut down a facility, especially during a state of emergency, Poloncarz said. And the county likely won't stop there with the information it gathers, he said.

"Any information that shows you’re violating the state’s standards, we’ll pass that on to the state and the State Liquor Authority," he said. "If the State Liquor Authority thinks that you’ve violated a directive of the governor during a state of emergency — I would not want to go down that road about arguing why you need to keep your liquor license."

At a City Hall press conference later Sunday, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown reinforced the message, with city officials warning that fire prevention authorities can issue fines and work with police to shut down places that don't comply.

“I can tell you as an operator, we were within the occupancy requirements, and I know that most of my compatriots were,” said Nick Pitillo, of Osteria 166 and Villagio.

Right now, a lot of restaurant owners are struggling to figure out the best way to handle the coronavirus disruption. Lots of workers living check-to-check depend on the businesses.

But if – despite all the double-bleaching and Lysol obsession – they put customer or staffer health at risk, what’s the reward? Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was foreshadowing that the state may answer that  question, anyway, asking for voluntary closures first.

“We were down 75% revenue yesterday,” Pitillo said. That’s better than he expected, but he can’t keep the business open at that rate.

At Daniela, 387 Forest Ave., the staff has added curbside service, like a lot of places struggling to adapt. With the small dine-in space and counter seating, it’s easy to keep track of her customer numbers, said owner Daniela Antonella Cosmano Kayser.

“It is a stressful situation for everyone in the restaurant business because, you know, all my employees live paycheck to paycheck. We’re stressed but trying to be positive – and cleaning.” Meaning every surface customers might touch, as well as the point-of-sale system, is sanitized after each person.

In fact, having to count customers is a problem lots of restaurants would like to have right now.

Sunday afternoon, things were so sleepy at The Grotto, 60 Niagara St., that executive chef Richard Isaacs led an impromptu St. Patrick’s Day parade to draw some attention.

It didn’t work. Niagara Square was empty. Elsewhere, so were many of the chairs in brunch spots that usually have a waiting list.

“We’ll be thankful to get 50% occupancy,” Pitillo said. “Then we're happy to have kept people working, and we kept the bills paid this week.”

He knows this for sure: “We're going to abide by the laws, stay vigilant, do the right thing and certainly try and survive for ourselves as well as all of our people. If people continue to come and it's legal, I feel like we have to continue to serve them. But what's gonna happen next week?”

With Sunday's St. Patrick's Day parade down Delaware Avenue canceled, there were fewer people around to visit the bars around downtown.

Nevertheless, back on Chippewa, the rooftop at SoHo Burger Bar was bustling. While the crowds might indicate some aren't very concerned about the risk posed by the pandemic, some took precautions. At one point, a bouncer at SoHo tapped elbows with two entering patrons, instead of shaking hands or sharing a high-five.

SoHo owner Jay Manno said the bar was within its adjusted capacity of 209 people, half of the normal 418.

"It's been bad," he said of business even before Sunday.

The cancellation of events downtown, like Buffalo Sabres games and shows at Shea's Performing Arts Center, affects his bar and others in the vicinity more than neighborhood establishments, and more people working from home in the weeks ahead will further hurt his business by cutting in on his lunch crowd, he said.

"I'm kind hopeful they shut everything down" and let things reopen in two or three weeks, he said.

After Buffalo police checked out 67 West, staff stopped letting additional patrons in for the time being and also removed some who already were inside..

Liza Bowman, a Grand Island native, came to Chippewa on Sunday armed with a 1 oz. container of Lysol disinfectant she carried in a fanny pack. She also had a mask with her, but she wasn't wearing it.

"We're just trying to live," Bowman said. "We don't want it to scare us."

Bowman works in the hotel industry, which is being devastated by concerns over the spreading disease. A self-described "huge germaphobe," she told a reporter "coronavirus is not stopping us."

"I think that they're making it a bigger deal than what it is," she said, "but what do I know?"

Poloncarz urges residents to stop panic buying, stay at home

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