(Photo: @stdymphnas on Instagram)

When Governor Cuomo announced on Aug. 29 the suspension of six additional New York State liquor licenses due to alleged violations of Covid-19 regulations, St. Dymphna’s, a long-running bar in East Village, was on the list.

“With a heavy heart I have to announce to you all that St. Dymphna’s will be closed, pending a hearing for our liquor license suspension,” wrote Brendan McElroy, the bar’s owner, in an Instagram post. “We were unfairly targeted by the State Liquor Authority, [which] issued baseless citations.” 

The bar has been in the neighborhood for 24 years, and has been a frequent hub for artists in different mediums. The relationships McElroy established with his clients drove him to open an art gallery nearby on St. Marks Place in February. He also hoped to debut an outdoor garden, but Dymphna’s was closed most of the summer. 

To recover the license, the bar has to pay $25,000 plus $10,000 in legal fees. This is a huge hit, as revenue is down by more than 80% from when it was operating normally, McElroy told Bedford + Bowery. He has raised $3,286 through a GoFundMe campaign to cover the fine and legal expenses. 

“A lot of bars are saying ‘Fuck this,’ and turning their keys to landlords and shutting down,” McElroy said. “I’m not going to do that. I want to keep St. Dymphna’s going, we put a lot into it, and it means a lot to me personally and the community.” 

Several other bars in the East Village have faced suspensions since June, when news reports showed hundreds of drinkers congregating on St. Marks Place. Since the onset of the pandemic, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) has suspended the licenses of 201 businesses across New York State.

St. Dymphna’s had its license suspended because “investigators with the state’s multi-agency task force observed numerous patrons standing, drinking, and ignoring social distancing guidelines outside the premises, with multiple customers observed ordering beverages from a takeout window,” according to a press release from Governor Cuomo’s office. “Investigators checking sales receipts found that practically no food was purchased with orders that evening, in violation of the Governor’s Executive Orders.” 

During an emergency SLA hearing on Aug. 14, an attorney arguing in favor of the license suspension noted that investigators had previously warned St. Dymphna’s– on June 18 and Aug. 5– about crowding outside of the bar, though the SLA attorney admitted that during the June investigation, Avenue A was so crowded that it was hard to determine which drinkers were patrons of the bar.  

“This location is a waste of our investigative resources,” said SLA commissioner Lily M. Fan before voting to suspend the license. “The agency is tired of chasing after people to comply, and they’re clearly disregarding the governor and also this Authority.”

McElroy said the SLA had sent photographers to the bar who staged photos to make it seem as if employees were violating regulations. When investigators gave him a report of the violations, some of the photos included were of other bars, he said. The SLA did not reply to requests for comment. 

“It seems that the state is using bars and restaurants as an easy target to recoup tax losses during Covid,” said McElroy. 

Robert Garson of GS2 Law, a lawyer who is representing nearby Cloister Cafe in its lawsuit against the State Liquor Authority, also believes the SLA is trying to recover sales tax losses. “SLA has seen this as an opportunity to try to make themselves more money, and their job should be to facilitate compliant liquor sales, not to shake down an industry that’s already on its knees,” said Garson. He added that the minimum fee to recover the liquor license is $10,000. 

New York State senators like Julia Salazar have been vocal against these suspensions, signing a letter asking SLA to end the strict enforcement guidelines

“I am disturbed by accounts of harsh penalties being imposed with little or no due process, inconsistent investigations and enforcement measures that are applied inequitably in different communities,” Salazar told Bedford + Bowery via email, adding that “exorbitant fines or license suspensions will result in the loss of even more of our small businesses.” 

Even with legal representation, McElroy doesn’t see any option other than paying the $25,000 fine imposed by the SLA. Fighting back would delay reopening several months or risk losing the bar’s license permanently, he said. 

Filings from the State Supreme court indicate that out of the 201 establishments that have had their licenses suspended since the start of the pandemic, only three have sued the SLA. There are currently 37 suspensions still in effect, and 65 establishments have paid fines totaling over $1 million.