LONG ISLAND, NY — A new mandate by Gov. Andrew Cuomo putting the brakes on all ticketed music and comedy performances at restaurants and bars has caused an outcry in the entertainment industry.
The mandate on the New York State Liquor Authority's website, under the "Guidelines for Licensed On-Premises Establishments," states: "Only incidental music is permissible at this time. This means that advertised and/or ticketed shows are not permissible. Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself."
Restaurants and other on premises food and beverage establishments that have a license through the SLA are only allowed to offer on-premise music if their license certificate specifically allows for the activity, including live music, a DJ, or recorded music.
If offering music, indoors or out, Department of Health guidance dining must be followed, including the wearing of face. coverings. Performers should be at least 12 feet from patrons.
"All other forms of live entertainment, such as exotic dancing, comedy shows, karaoke etc., are not permissible currently regardless of phase," the site states.
The new guidance rocked those struggling to survive in entertainment across Long Island and New York State.
"As an event producer, my whole business and all my friends and business associates are deeply impacted — 30 years in the music business and in one fell swoop we have been destroyed," said Diane Tucci in Riverhead. "I’m down 98 percent in revenue with no end in sight for the event business. Many of my friends own bars or play at them. The restaurants were starting to charge for bands in order to pay them. This affects our whole culture. Live music and supporting musicians is at the heart of everything I have done for years."
She added: "Did Cuomo not get an instrument for Christmas as a kid? Why the vendetta against restaurants and breweries and musicians?" Tucci described the mandate as "the latest death blow from Cuomo."
Tucci said there are issues that she does not understand. "If you have music, what difference does it make if you charge for it at the door or not? The restaurant and bar owners are trying to recoup their losses and in order to pay the musicians to play they are now charging a ticket. Whether they charge admission or not should be irrelevant and the number of people who are there."
She added: "It’s the same as a stupid law that you have to buy food in order to have a drink. Now people are throwing away food and wasting food when they would buy that drink regardless of buying food or not. All this is doing is hurting the music industry and the restaurant and bar owners. Charging for food or music fees has no factor on getting COVID. It’s just crazy!"
The mandates, she added, are not stopping people from going out. "Not allowing restaurants and bars to charge for music in order to pay the musicians when they are already at 50 percent capacity is ludicrous. And not allowing them to advertise music is worse! So what’s next? They can’t advertise a special menu item? Too many people may come to eat them?"
Others said, while difficult, they understood the need for the mandate."We have suspended our upcoming ticketed shows. We did so as soon as we became aware of the news rules for operating," said Nick Kraus, partner at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. "This of course hurts the business and the artists, but we will abide by whatever mandates that the state puts forward. Hoping for the best in the near future."
"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 William Crowley, public affairs office, New York State Liquor Authority. "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."
This week, after seeing an increase in establishments advertising ticketed events, the SLA clarified language on its website and proactively emailed all bars and restaurants to ensure they were aware of the months-old restrictions, Crowley said.
"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," he added.
As it currently stands, outdoor and — outside of New York City — indoor dining are allowed, but not concerts.
Cuomo's press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the governor directly.
Comedy shows canceled
Comedian George Gallo, who was set to headline a sold-out show at Stereo Garden in Patchogue, said the show was canceled by the venue after the new state mandates were unveiled.
Gallo said he had questions: The venue, he said, was large, with plenty of space for the audience to remain socially distanced. An entertainer who also works in engineering and architecture, Gallo said he is a "man, a worker, a father, before a comedian." But he said he has questions about high-density gatherings that are allowed to take place. "You have protests out there so you are allowing that form of expression, but not this other form of expression that is so rewarding?" he asked.
He noted that he takes the Long Island Rail Road and subway almost daily, where he said the mask mandate is not actively enforced.
Also, he asked why an "incidental" performer is allowed to play a guitar at a restaurant, for example, but not a comedian on a 4 x 6 stage, behind plexiglass, socially distanced from the crowd.
Coming from an engineering background, the guidance, Gallo believes, should be based on "square footage, volume and space. How can you put the same cookie cutter equation to every situation? It makes no sense."
And, he said, it would be more productive if the focus were on solutions.
The guidance, Gallo said, "is not consistent. You need to be consistent with policies."
Ryan Welsch, part owner of 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue, and also a musician and sound engineer, was outraged: "This is putting handcuffs on a drowning person."
Musician Paul Mahos said the news was "disheartening, to say the least. Regardless of your feelings about the credibility of this pandemic, this situation has become more about politics and less about the virus. It has become less about saving people from catching COVID and more about sticking it to us, 'we the people' and the already struggling businesses that are the heart and soul of our country. Our elected government officials have overstepped their authority and trampled on a number of our rights."
Mahos said his heart goes out to everyone who has lost loved ones due to the virus.
"However, it is as deeply troubling to see the collateral damage caused by the draconian policies set forth by our mean-spirited governor. It seems evident that he is hellbent on New York State's complete and utter destruction," Mahos said. "Make no mistake about it: Main Street America and the working class are under a relentless attack. The war is being brought to our doorstep and I fear that they will leave good people no choice but to stand and fight for their god-given rights toward their pursuit of happiness."
James Dolce, owner of Governor's Comedy Club in Levittown, also had to cancel a full slate of sold-out shows.
"The rules keep changing, every day," he said. "It's hard to keep track."
One minute, he said, it was fine to open as long as comedians stayed outdoors, with social distancing protocols in place. Dolce enclosed all his stages in plexiglass, inside and outside, and "got the green light" from the board of health, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and the fire marshal, he said.
Now, the new mandate, he said, meant he had to cancel his shows and let customers they'd be rescheduled at a later date. "This won't last forever," he said.
Dolce said he believes the issue is a "political football."
"If the stats warranted this decision, I could live with it, no problem," Dolce said. "But the statistics really don't warrant this. I've been open 10 weeks with outside comedy and not one incident of any kind regarding the virus has been documented at the club."
Cuomo said Wednesday that New York State's infection rate stood at .7 percent, the lowest since the pandemic began.
Dolce said he is working with an attorney and speaking with Curran as well as Sen. Phil Boyle to address concerns.
Of the canceled shows, he said, "Sure, I'm disappointed." His lineup for the coming days included Tim Dillon, Chris Distefano and Anthony Rodia. "These are all comics that have a very large fan base — fans who were looking forward to seeing their favorites comedians," he said.
The pandemic, he said, has cut a cruel swath across the industry: "You have people out of work; comics who love to do comedy and can't even do that — or they have to be behind plexiglass, with no contact with the audience," he said.
However, Dolce said: "You have to follow the rules and regulations. You don't have much of a choice. This is the hands of the prophecy. Cuomo is a great governor. But in politics, you don't have to agree on all the issues — and this is one I don't agree with him on. I don't think he's looking at this on a one-by-one basis. When you group everyone into one pot, it's not a fair situation."
A cry for change: Comedians, musicians look to organize
Frustrated by an ever-shifting landscape and all promises of work seeming to dissipate, comedians and musicians alike are looking to organize, creating petitions and crying out for change.
"Musicians, restaurants and other related parties need to get organized and fight this," Dean Del Prete wrote on Facebook.
A petition created by Stacey Givan, "Allow Live NY State Music Advertising At Bars/Restaurants/Venues" has gotten more than 3,000 signatures.
"Working musicians have been waiting patiently to return to their performing lifeline. There has been much confusion on what is permitted and what is not when it comes to live music. With the re-opening of bars, restaurants and venues, bringing music back with social distancing along with the many guidelines has allowed musicians to start on the path to normalcy and make up at least a fraction of their lost income," the petition said.
"Advertising and ticket sales are essential in a musician’s success but the current guidelines state we can no longer advertise even the smallest of shows, including when musicians are background dinner music. This has crossed the line. . .We must make our government understand that this is unacceptable and will destroy our musical livelihood along with hurting our venues to the point of extinction," the petition said.
One petition, "If Live Music Is Allowed, Comedy Should Be, Too," has garnered almost 8,000 signatures so far.
Comedian Mike Keegan said there is a need for answers. While he said in-person shows behind plexiglass were a "bit awkward," he understood those safety measures needed to be taken to work.
Keegan said there is no clarity, no direct guidance about when comedy will be allowed to commence.
"At some point, you have to believe that there is more to this than just the disease. The virus isn't checking licenses," Keegan said. "It's politics. Every time we gain a little bit of leverage, they take it away. I do think that we are being targeted."
A letter was sent out from the SLA to all bars and restaurants this week to "remind licensees (that may have the privilege of providing entertainment) of what has currently been deemed safe in terms of live entertainment. Currently, only incidental music performances are safe and permissible."
Incidental music is non-ticketed, unadvertised performances that accompany and are incidental to a dining experience — for examples patrons have come to dine, and the music provided is incidental to the dining experience, the letter said.
"This is the only form of permissible live entertainment. Any other type of event — concerts, dance, comedy, etc.— is not incidental and is therefore impermissible at this time for health and safety reasons. Performing arts guidance has not yet been issued by the Department of Health."
Karaoke is not presently permitted for reasons of health and safety, the letter said.