Seven years ago, Leah Dixon co-founded a charming dive bar named Beverly’s on the Lower East Side. Featuring a flashy, pink neon sign and artwork on full display, the artist-run bar was the ideal place for people to crowd together and feed off of each other’s positive energy. But once Covid-19 forced Beverly’s to shut down completely, the once lively bar struggled to get back on its feet.
Gov. Cuomo announced in a press conference on Wednesday that New York City will delay plans for reopening indoor dining at bars and restaurants indefinitely as the city moves into Phase 3 of reopening. With Covid-19 cases soaring in states like Florida, Arizona, and Texas, the delay wasn’t all that surprising to those living in what was once the epicenter of the pandemic. However, it’s a devastating blow for the food and drink industry, which was forced to halt on-site dining for months after stay-at-home orders began and now continues to see a reduced amount of business even as outdoor dining is finally an option.
Just hours after Gov. Cuomo’s announcement, Beverly’s posted on their Instagram page that the bar will permanently close its doors at 21 Essex Street. “We shut down a couple of days before the mandatory shutdown simply because we had heard of people in our expanded network who were sick,” said Dixon. “I don’t think any of us had any idea that that would be it for us.”
Early on in the pandemic, Dixon and fellow co-founder Chris Herity and Dan Sutti thought that Beverly’s would at least be back up and running by May, which motivated them to try to keep the bar going. They temporarily paused some payments (including rent, thanks to a very generous landlord), took advantage of the government-issued PPP loans, and continued to pay their employees a livable wage. But with a halted business and virtually no money coming in, that budget quickly descended to zero.
With art always being at the core of Beverly’s bar, the owners began selling artwork by various artists on its website along with merchandise. They also began a Kickstarter campaign that would hopefully be a crutch for their piling expenses. But even after raising tens of thousands of dollars through these efforts, it was barely enough to maintain a ground-floor space with a liquor license in lower Manhattan. And that’s when the fear started trickling in.
In order to get the PPP loan forgiven, Beverly’s bar had to reopen in one way or another. But Dixon’s concern was that, once any type of business resumed at the bar, each paused payment would automatically resume as well. “It really made us feel like we were backed into a corner. We didn’t know whether to take the chance and maybe make 20 percent of what we need to make and then just immediately have these bills come through or just be closed and hope that more government aid would come,” Dixon said. “At a certain point, we couldn’t imagine any way in the future that we’ll ever be able to pay ourselves again.”
The destructive effects of Covid-19 have been observed in nearly every sector of life in NYC, from the diminishing of basic routines and social interactions to the shuttering of small businesses on nearly every corner. The Beekman Pub’s owner, Eddie Robinson, said that the popular downtown bar “has been forced to close its doors.” YN Bar in Nolita also recently finalized their decision to permanently close the location. Silvana Creanza, the bar’s general manager, who has been active in the NYC restaurant industry for 20 years, said that with no end of the pandemic in sight, YN’s best feature of being “a small, cozy place” had turned into its biggest liability.
Although outdoor dining is permitted in all five boroughs, the option is simply not feasible for a small space like Beverly’s, and serving only a few tables would just make the problem worse. Dixon and her partners bounced around ideas to change the bar’s scene into a daytime coffee shop and switching to a bar for the few hours before the 11pm cap on all restaurants. But with expenses in mind, the idea wasn’t sustainable or an attractive option for regulars.
“We were like, this isn’t going to be fun for our customers,” she said about resuming the business. “I could see maybe having a little boost right away because people just miss Beverly’s, but people want to go to Beverly’s and have the experience that they’re used to having and that’s impossible right now.”
Two weeks after the start of outdoor seating, bigger nightlife spots like Hair of the Dog on the Lower East Side are disappointed about the delay in indoor dining, even with 20 available seats outside.
“Outdoor seating is somewhat helpful, but it doesn’t pay the bills; indoor dining was gonna get us more towards a break-even scenario,” said Hair of the Dog owner Mitchell Banchik. “It’s just another blow to the hospitality business that’s been suffering tremendously from throughout the pandemic.”
Banchik owns a series of prominent bars in Manhattan, including Greenwich Village’s Down the Hatch and The 13th Step, and he mentions that they have all experienced similar scenarios. Before news broke of the delay, Banchik said Hair of the Dog had all the necessary protocols in place to seat customers inside, including an appropriate distance layout and sanitizing stations to keep customers safe while maximizing business as much as possible.
The uncertainty as to when Phase 3 will fully proceed, the piling expenses, and the early closing curfew – pitiful compared to Hair of the Dog’s pre-pandemic 4am closing time – have all been huge sources of frustration for Banchik. Although New York State is now doing relatively well in terms of Covid-19 numbers, the delay is a direct response to spikes in other states, which, he says, is “completely unfair.”
Operators of other NYC hotspots say postponing indoor dining is the best way to prevent another large-scale outbreak in the city. Charlie Garriga, general manager of Puffy’s Tavern in Tribeca, says outdoor seating has “been great” and he’s in no rush to resume indoor seating if it means keeping customers healthy and ensuring the small bar remains open.
“We definitely can’t shut down again. So if this is just another precaution, to wait a little bit longer, I think it’s worth it in the long run,” he said.
Puffy’s began selling drinks and its famous sandwiches again after two months of being closed. But even with businesses being slower than he’s used to, Garriga says that the unclear guidelines for bars along with the alarming videos of young people congregating without masks on St. Marks Place and the Upper West Side that surfaced a few weeks back have been major indicators that NYC should probably hold off.
“I don’t know how to keep people from walking up to each other and keeping people separate [at the bar]. I don’t know how they want to have us maintain social distancing, if that’s going to be the case, because if people want to lean on the bar, stand at the bar, they’re going to be next to other people,” said Garriga.
Even with such an uncertain future, Dixon remains remarkably positive about the future of Beverly’s – even if it will no longer be the artsy Lower East Side hot spot that people have come to love. Holding on to those artistic roots, Dixon hopes to host art exhibitions for bustling new artists and even parties when social distancing becomes a thing of the past. The most important part for Dixon, and for everyone that showed an overwhelming support for Beverly’s once the closing announcement was made, is that a place exists for people to come together, make lasting memories, and build a community desperately needed in such a large city.
“I don’t think we would rule out ever trying to open another bar, especially after seeing how important it’s been to people and how much we deeply believe in spaces where anyone off the street can walk in and feel comfortable. A bar can do that better than anywhere else.”