The state Liquor Authority suspended on an emergency basis the licenses for taverns in Buffalo and Clarence accused of violating the state's Covid-19 restrictions on bar and restaurant operations.
The authority's board on Tuesday afternoon voted to issue emergency suspensions for Swannie House, 170 Ohio St., and AJ's Clarence Hollow, 10250 Main St., according to an authority spokesman.
Once a liquor license is summarily suspended, the license holder has the right to an expedited hearing before an administrative law judge. The suspension order remains in effect until it is changed by the authority or through a judicial review.
Erie County Health Department employees and sheriff's deputies had closed the taverns on March 27 after receiving complaints that the two were serving patrons on the premises.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had issued a state executive order on March 22 closing all bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery orders.
County Health Department spokeswoman Kara Kane had said the employees were following up on complaints from the public and that the closings are temporary but don't have an end date.
According to a statement from the liquor authority, Erie County officials received a complaint on March 27 that the Swannie House was continuing normal daily operations. The complaint included a video showing about 12 people at the bar consuming alcoholic beverages.
When Erie County sheriff's deputies arrived at 9 p.m., they found the front door locked and saw customers leaving through a rear door.
The same day, county officials received complaints that AJ’s in Clarence also was continuing to operate. A health inspector watched the restaurant for about 30 minutes and saw 11 people inside the bar.
Deputies and health inspectors who went into the bar were met by the owner. After they told him he was in violation of the governor's order, he insisted he couldn't stop customers from hanging out and drinking inside the premises.
Al Toralti, an owner of AJ's Clarence Hollow, told The Buffalo News the next day that he took responsibility for what happened but said he didn't intentionally set out to violate the state order.
Toralti said he had a minimal staff on for that day and he said he wasn't prepared when his phone line blew up with orders for fish fries and other meals starting around 5 p.m.
The business wasn't able to keep up with the volume of orders and customers ended up having to wait around for their food, he said.
Some had gotten drinks to go – which are permitted under the state order – and they ended up standing or sitting near the bar with them until their food was ready to carry out.
"It was definitely my fault," Toralti said. "I basically just lost control."
“Bar and restaurant owners have to take this new reality seriously,” Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said in a statement released the next day. “These regulations are in place for a deadly serious reason, and bars and restaurants that are open in violation of the law are putting their customers and their employees at risk. This is unacceptable and we will shut you down.”