Over a month after its liquor license was suspended following a news report about “pandemic parties,” Cloister Cafe reopens tonight, having won a temporary restraining order against the State Liquor Authority.
A State Supreme Court judge has “found that pending the final hearing, Cloister Cafe doesn’t seem to be posing the terrible, apocalyptic danger that the SLA were spouting,” says Robert Garson of GS2 Law, the embattled East Village hookah lounge’s lawyer.
Cloister Cafe had previously sought a temporary injunction against the SLA by arguing that it was unfairly targeted because of a Gothamist post about “illicit, underground pandemic parties,” published just a few days before the SLA inspected the cafe along with NYC sheriff’s officers on Aug. 7. The cafe also argued that its 14th amendment rights to due process were violated when the SLA held an emergency suspension meeting just hours after the inspection, without giving Cloister Cafe’s owners notice or a chance to defend themselves. As Bedford + Bowery previously reported, a New York Southern District judge declined to issue an injunction, but he invited Cloister Cafe to initiate a proceeding under Article 78, which allows for the appeal of “arbitrary and capricious” decisions made by New York state or local agencies. That hearing is now scheduled for Oct. 5.
In the meantime, Cloister Cafe will resume service. “Of course they’re going to have a heightened attitude toward Covid compliance,” said Garson, the cafe’s lawyer, “because they know the SLA are now looking for them to slip up to try to vindicate their position. But when you look at the evidence, the original footage, here was a restaurant trying its damnedest to make sure that they could operate while Covid compliant.”
Body camera footage, part of which can be viewed above, shows the SLA inspector entering the East 9th Street cafe shortly after midnight and observing people gathered around tables and smoking hookahs in Cloister’s covered courtyard. The Southern District judge characterized the scene as “a nightclub-like party taking place in a lounge setting under a large tent covering.”
“What’s going on in here?” the inspector asks Cloister Cafe’s owner, Nicholas Dobrenko.
“Dining,” he responds.
As the inspector moves through the space and checks paperwork, he finds what he says is an expired public assembly permit and certificate of operation, and points out an area that, he says, qualifies as indoor dining because it’s closed off by three walls. “You’ve got 11 people there,” the inspector says, citing the current legal limit of 10 people per table. Cloister argued in court that one wall was in fact a “half-wall with the upper half open for air flow,” and Garson told Bedford + Bowery the allegations of expired permits were “utterly contrived as a pretext.” In total, “the inspection identified 33 significant fire and life safety violations,” the governor’s office wrote in a press release.
During the inspection, Michael Satsky, a hospitality operator who with Brian Gefter is developing the Cloister Cafe property for the Dobrenko family, can be heard complaining to the inspector. “This is a complete setup and everything is above board, and this is completely insulting while everyone is unemployed… the fact that they’re looking for fruit flies in bottles right now say it all.”
“The governor needs to review the practices and the procedures of the SLA forthwith,” said Garson. “There are too many restaurateurs who, because of circumstance, have been denied the opportunity to work. And all of their work and all of the people that they employ need to be given just a little bit more slack.”