NYC Updated Its Drinking Rules Again. Here's What to Know.

Gov. Cuomo created confusion with new regulations regarding bars and restaurants.

July 17, 2020 6:19 am
John Lamparski/Getty Images

After a week like this, I need a drink. But how?

Andrew Cuomo created confusion at his Thursday press conference, where the Governor lashed out at bars and restaurants for recent “unacceptable” behavior during the coronavirus pandemic and phased re-openings, citing thousands of complaints against venues regarding a lack of social distancing and masks.

New regulations were announced, with initial reports suggesting the city might lose to-go cocktails — an initiative started in March that’s probably keeping most bars alive. However, after some follow-up clarification, the new measures seem to be more of a tightening of laws that already exist … with severe consequences for establishments that don’t follow the rules.

Let’s break this down, and remember: in pandemic times, all rules and regulations are subject to change at a moment’s notice.

Can I still go to bars in New York?

Yes. You’ll still be outside. Even if we hit Phase Four on Monday, indoor seating at bars and restaurants isn’t in the near future. The big change is that you’ll have to order food now to get those drinks, even if you’re sitting down, which was always supposed to be the case for to-go cocktails.

Wait, can I still get to-go drinks?

The simple answer is yes, although you’ll have to order food as well … which, to be fair, was a requirement when the law was announced in March.

Will bars that don’t serve food be an exception?

No, because legally if you’re a bar in New York you can also serve food.

Ah, so I can order a bag of chips and nine margarita …

Ehhhh … technically, no. The law is worded oddly, seeming to suggest that you have to “cook” something or basically put some work into the food you serve. It’s admittedly vague, which is frustrating and could probably be used against an establishment in an indiscriminate manner.

That said, the law says “a tavern license’s minimum food requirement is soups, sandwiches and the like,” and a hot dog is a sandwich, so … expect a lot of cheap handheld foods to pop up on drink menus.

What’s the point here?

To avoid crowded, mask-less scenes like this. As well, the new emphasis on these (admittedly small and in some cases, already existing) regulations are more about Gov. Cuomo’s new “three strikes” policy, where bars and restaurants can be shut down temporarily — and/or lose their liquor license — after three violations.

Was there a better solution?

Probably, but enforcement of social-distancing protocols around bars has been lacking (though I’d blame the city and state more than the establishments themselves). Also, opening up more streets and being less prudish about open containers in outside areas that offer plenty of six-feet-apart space (e.g., parks) would help curb the issue. And yes, at a few of these newly reopened bars, a lot of people have been hanging out in large crowds without masks. New Yorkers take some blame here, too.

In the end, the eating requirement is admittedly annoying. I consider it a tax: to drink here, you must also buy this $5 grilled cheese. Plus, the requirement might help some venue’s bottom lines by adding a few more dollars to every bill, although my guess is that it’s going to make it much more difficult for some venues to stay open.

But if the new requirements make everyone safer — debatable but certainly possible — it’s worth the increased vigilance and food surcharge.

(And yes, we are lucky to be in a state where drinking in public in any form is still allowed during a pandemic and, more importantly, where our COVID-19 numbers remain promising.)


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