“Owning a bar in a fucking pandemic sucks– to be as succinct as possible,” says Abby Ehmann, 61.
For four years, Ehmann has been operating Lucky on B, an East Village establishment she describes as a “dive bar for grownups.” The narrow, old-timey space has dollar bills pasted on the ceiling— an old port bar tradition— and a jukebox that plays tunes from defunct downtown bars. Lucky on B has become a place where writers, musicians, retirees and other creatives congregate for conversation and a draft beer or a vodka soda with lime. But after eight slow months with low returns and constant stress, Ehmann is preparing to close down the bar temporarily for the winter months.
“I just don’t see that it’s worth it,” says Ehmann, who is also a writer and formerly a local event organizer. “Even if cost was no object, I have to worry about my health. Because if I’m going to be in this room with a bunch of strangers breathing, is it worth it to make hardly any money and to jeopardize my health?”
Ehmann says her revenue has been down more than 50 percent as compared to last year, and it’s a miracle she’s even been able to stay open this long. As temperatures drop and fewer of us are willing to brave the outdoors, Ehmann doesn’t see a path forward. Installing outdoor heaters would require an expensive electrical upgrade, she says, and her interior space would only accommodate eight to ten socially-distanced customers.
Ehmann also worries about staying in compliance with the government’s extensive rules and regulations for indoor dining. Over the summer, Ehmann created an online petition against the state’s mandate that bars serve food to their customers, a rule Ehmann considers nonsensical.
The petition urged Cuomo to reverse the order, arguing it “not only puts an onerous burden on bar owners, it has no bearing on safety or health.”
Needless to say, the petition– while signed by more than 5,000 people– did not result in a change to the regulations. In fact, authorities later fined Ehmann $35,000 and temporarily revoked her liquor license for not complying with the order. She was able to settle for a lower fee of $10,000 but the fine and legal fees put her further in a financial hole.
“I just don’t trust [the government] to let us flourish,” Ehmann says. “So rather than just scraping by, it’s easier to just take the stress off.”
For regulars of Lucky on B, the upcoming closure, even if only temporary, brings both sadness and nostalgia. “Abby has really assembled a great community of people here,” says Scott Orr, a writer who visits the bar almost daily. “We are all friends, not just here but outside the bar, too.”
“We’ve had birthdays here, Christmas, my retirement party— we celebrate our lives here,” added Keith Peterson, a retired lawyer who frequents the bar.
Ehmann is quick to note that to be able to close the bar temporarily is a testament to her own privilege. She says she’ll be able to live off of her savings for the next few months and negotiate a deal with her landlord to reduce her rent.
Meanwhile, a number of other East Village bars and restaurants are making the tough decision to close down altogether. Caracas, a small East Village Venezuelan outpost, served its last arepas on Sunday. Feast, an American restaurant on 3rd Avenue, announced in an Instagram post last week that it is closing its doors, and on Friday, Ducks Eatery bid farewell to the neighborhood with one final brisket night.
“It’s been so painful,” said Julie Horowitz, who opened Ducks with her older brother Will back in 2012. “But people really came out of the woodwork on Friday. Customers who moved out and came into the city just to see us off.”
Julie explained that Ducks— known for its heritage cooking and cured meats— is busiest in the spring. As soon as the cold weather hit earlier this month, business came to a near standstill. Building out a heated outdoor structure would not make financial sense for Ducks, which, because of a bike lane and subway construction, has been unable to take advantage of the city’s Open Streets initiative for restaurants.
Julie isn’t sure what’s next for her and her brother. She’s hopeful, though, that out of the tragedy of small businesses being forced to close down during the pandemic will come a reckoning.
“This is tragic for so many small restaurants,” said Julie. “We’re going to see a lot of restaurants go under, but let’s hope it leads to a more fair setup for, and a more stable infrastructure for the next round of mom and pops.”