After bar manager’s arrest, COVID culture wars escalate in Staten Island
By Corey Kilganon
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated a 10 p.m. curfew at bars, Mac’s Public House, a tavern on Staten Island, stayed open after hours.
When the state suspended the pub’s liquor license, the general manager announced a way to skirt the law: by serving food and alcohol for free — still indoors — in exchange for a contribution.
Keith McAlarney, the bar owner, ignored cease-and-desist notices and rapidly accruing fines, he said. McAlarney painted an orange rectangle out front and declared the bar an “autonomous zone.” He publicly taunted Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom he called “de Bozo,” to come down in person and take the license off the wall.
But this week, the city and the state struck back, making this tavern a flash point in the COVID-19 culture wars that have turned some business owners and party hosts into rebels against pandemic restrictions.
In New York City, Staten Island has been one of the centers of rebellion, even as authorities began constructing an emergency field hospital because of a soaring coronavirus infection rate in the borough. The ZIP code in the area where the bar is located has an 8.62 test positivity rate, the fourth highest among New York City ZIP codes in the past seven days.
Staten Island diverges from the city’s four other boroughs in its Republican political leanings and its support for President Donald Trump, and indeed in the desire of some of its residents over the years to secede from the city.
On Tuesday, deputies from the city’s Sheriff’s Office arrested Danny Presti, the bar manager, for obstructing governmental administration. They led him away in handcuffs as protesters and loyal customers heckled them. The bar’s liquor license has been suspended.State Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican who represents the area, showed up Tuesday night to support the bar and told The New York Post that he was surrounded and physically restrained by deputies when he tried to force his way in to assist Presti. Lanza did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, protesters gathered outside the bar, many holding American flags and shouting chants against Cuomo.
In an interview Wednesday, McAlarney said he felt he had to take a stand against a whiplash of restrictions that is hurting businesses like his. “I was trying to get their attention so that they would work with the industry instead of being lazy with their decisions and just closing things down,” he said from inside his bar as a phalanx of deputy sheriffs outside kept customers from entering.
Because patrons crowd together and talk loudly, health experts have said that they have often been major spreaders of the virus, which has killed more than 24,000 people in New York City.
McAlarney said he was not persuaded that restrictions on bars were effective in stopping the spread of the virus and questioned the government’s role in regulating gatherings. “If you feel that it’s not safe to go out, then choose to stay home,” he said.
Although many bar owners have bridled at the pandemic restrictions inhibiting their businesses, most have abided by them, often by accommodating drinkers legally outside, on sidewalks, parking lots and street spaces — and serving them food, at the state’s insistence.
But McAlarney, who said he sunk his life savings to open the bar a year ago, said he felt compelled to resist the city’s “bully tactics.”
The free drinks strategy was announced by Presti on a YouTube video in which he explained from behind the bar that those customer donations would help pay the bar’s bills.
“It was never mandatory, only requested,” McAlarney said.
State officials said that even free service of alcohol without a state license is illegal.
The governor’s office criticized McAlarney for putting politics over pandemic safety.
“This owner is learning that actions have consequences,” said Jack Sterne, a spokesman for Cuomo. “Breaking the law and putting your neighbors’ lives at risk during a global pandemic to make a political statement is simply unacceptable.”
Regarding the bar declaring itself an autonomous zone, Mitch Schwartz, a mayoral spokesman, said, “COVID-19 doesn’t respect autonomous zones, and neither does the sheriff — there are consequences for endangering your neighbors in a pandemic.”
Presti’s arrest came shortly after several plainclothes deputies sat down inside Mac’s and ordered food and alcohol in exchange for a mandatory “donation” of $40. They observed other patrons were doing the same, said the city’s sheriff, Joseph Fucito.
Deputies then issued appearance tickets for multiple violations of city and state laws and ordered Presti to leave. When he refused, he was arrested, said Mark J. Fonte, a lawyer for the bar’s owners.
Fonte claimed that the city was making an example of the bar for its vocal resistance to “onerous restrictions that would put them out of business.”
He said that Mac’s was already struggling during the pandemic because restrictions only allowed the owners to seat customers at 25% normal capacity. Those limits apply to all indoor dining and drinking in New York City.
When the area was designated an orange zone, “it just crushed them, so they’re doing anything possible to try to survive,” Fonte said.