Aug. 27, 2020 By Allie Griffin
State Sen. Jessica Ramos penned a letter to the State Liquor Authority (SLA) Wednesday calling on the agency to stop hitting small restaurant owners with hefty fines.
The lawmaker claims that the agency’s fines and “harassment tactics” are unfair, and come at a time when many business owners are struggling to stay afloat.
Ramos, along with two dozen other state senators, are calling on the SLA to immediately halt its “harsh punishment” against local restaurants and bars who need all the help they can get.
The agency has been tasked with enforcing the governor’s COVID-19 regulations to control the spread of the virus and keep New Yorkers safe. The political leaders argue that the agency has adopted a draconian approach that has been hurting restaurants and bars.
The SLA has issued nearly 900 violations to businesses across the state and suspended 162 liquor licenses, according to the latest SLA report. Fifty-one establishments in Queens have seen their liquor licenses yanked — more than any other borough or county in the state.
Businesses found in violation of COVID-19 regulations face fines of up to $10,000 per violation, while egregious violations can result in the immediate suspension of a bar or restaurant’s liquor license.
The senators said the “exorbitant fines” are putting small business owners further in debt after they have struggled financially for months amid the coronavirus shutdowns.
“Strict enforcement guidelines and high fines are destroying businesses’ chance to survive the economic catastrophe brought by the pandemic,” Ramos and her colleagues wrote.
However, the SLA maintains that it regularly reduces fines when business owners agree to corrective action plans that protect the public health.
The senators also allege that the SLA’s task force has used harassment tactics against small businesses. Ramos wrote that she and her fellow senators have heard of such instances in which SLA investigators used sirens and megaphones to taunt owners with the threat of closure during business hours.
The SLA said that its employees don’t use megaphones, but members of the NYPD or Sheriff’s Office may have.
Still, the lawmakers want to see the agency do better.
“We are publicly calling on you to lower the excessive fines, create a clear and transparent policy for restaurants to come into compliance, and end the blatant harassment that has been leveraged against small businesses across the state,” they wrote.
They also said that the state and city guidance for restaurants and outdoor dining has repeatedly changed — often with warning.
“After the March order to stop serving patrons, conflicting and disingenuous guidance has been given to restaurant owners who are attempting to reopen and stay open safely,” the senators said in the letter. “The Mayor and Governor have changed requirements and expanded enforcement capabilities without properly informing the public or providing them with due process.”
They said the administration must teach businesses and issue the guidance in multiple languages before punishing them. They added that business owners also deserve a right to a hearing and due process before they are fined.
Other Queens senators who signed the letter include Senators Joseph Addabbo, Leroy Comrie, John Liu and Toby Ann Stavisky.
“We are calling on the SLA to take immediate action to remedy their harsh punishment against small businesses when they need our support most,” the 25 senators wrote.
A spokesperson for the agency said their letter is “simply misinformed.”
“The SLA has had uniform standards for bars and restaurants from day one — posted publicly on our website — and I’d encourage these senators to actually read them before writing a politically-motivated missive,” the spokesperson said.
“These rules have been on the books for months, and enforcement is our last option to protect New Yorkers after continued non-compliance.”