COVID-19 has forced several beloved Ithaca establishments to shutter, hitting bars especially hard. For the bars that have survived the past year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) recent decision to extend closing time by an hour comes as a slight reprieve to an industry rattled by the virus.
On Feb. 14, Cuomo extended the closing time for restaurants and bars from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., in part due to the steady decline in statewide hospitalizations and infection rates. Although bars in the Ithaca area reported mixed views of the extra hour, the establishments generally said they welcome the extended curfew.
Following statewide trends, the less restrictive curfew comes on the back of a steady decline in state-wide hospitalizations and infection rates in Tompkins County. As of Monday, there were 137 active cases in the county.
For many establishments, the extra hour is an opportunity to both generate more business and create a more enjoyable experience for their patrons.
“We are very excited and looking forward to the extra hour,” said Jennifer Foster, manager of Agava. “With the limited availability, just an hour is crucial for us. It allows for people to sit longer and enjoy their meals and drinks, and it allows us to hopefully get more reservations.”
Because the extended curfew has only been in place for eight days, many bars have yet to see a sizable impact on their business from the extended curfew.
“It was sort of like a surprise for everyone when it was 10 p.m. and we weren’t kicking them out,” said Bar Argos manager Tippy Ard. “I think that it’ll be kind of an adjustment for people to realize that we’re open later, but I’m sure we will do more business as a result.”
Vinny Lyman, general manager of Ithaca’s Applebee’s Bar and Grill, said that although many might not yet be aware of the extension, this weekend’s patrons made use of the extra hour of operation. He hopes that this late-night activity will continue as people in the area, especially students, realize that they have an extra hour to linger.
“A lot of students come late at night, so we are hoping the extra hour will help that way,” Lyman said. “We do our half-price appetizers and happy hour drinks starting at 8 o’clock, so it at least gives us an extra hour to do that.”
The losses incurred by bars due to COVID-19 have been dramatic with strict guidelines in place, including limiting capacities, spacing requirements and sanitation measures. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 2.4 million employees in the bar and restaurant industry have lost their jobs. Sales within the sector fell by $240 billion in 2020.
Prioritizing the health and safety of their patrons, all of the bars have adapted their businesses to follow the public health guidelines. Based on her experience through the pandemic, Ard said she understands the logic behind the shorter hours.
“It’s certainly more difficult to enforce mask wearing and social distancing rules the later it gets,” Ard said. “People tend to get a little bit more inebriated and let their inhibitions down, and it just becomes easier to get up and walk away without your mask on.”
The Watershed Bar decided to end its in-person operations in November due to the spike in cases. Since then, the bar has been offering takeout drinks to its customers. Ashley Cake, owner of The Watershed, does not expect the extra hour to substantially alter their business activity.
“We need to have more hours where we’re able and allowed to be open and safely. I can see the pressure to expand the hours, but I don’t know how much more money folks are able to make in that extra hour,” Cake said. “It seems like a sort of a token gesture.”
Although the 11 p.m. closing time — two hours shy of the pre-COVID 1 a.m. closing time — still presents many challenges to these businesses, the establishments generally respect the restrictions.
“I listen to the experts as much as I can, and my top priority is my staff,” Cake said. “I try to split the difference between questioning the limitations and knowing that folks are doing their best to keep us all safe.”
Despite the excitement around the perceived benefits of the hour extension, the frequent restriction changes present its own set of challenges for the bars, which must quickly adjust their operations to accommodate the extra hour.
“The changes are always announced really fast and it’s kind of hard to keep up, so it creates a lot of pressure for some quick planning,” Ard said.
As they continue to weather the pandemic, the bars will continue to follow the public health standards, hoping that normalcy bears near.
“We are taking it day by day,” Foster said. “Right now, we are just looking forward to a safe and healthy season for everybody.”