Queens senator joins small business owners to speak out against ‘harassment’ from State Liquor Authority

ramos sla 2
Angélica Acevedo/QNS

State Senator Jessica Ramos was joined by more than 30 Queens and Manhattan business owners who spoke out against what they say has been “excessive fining” and liquor license removals from the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA).

Ramos held a press conference outside of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building on Wednesday, Aug. 19, to demand a resolution from Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Queens is one of the boroughs with the most businesses that have had their liquor licenses suspended in the last few weeks of reopening.

“Since Aug. 11, 31 establishments in my district have experienced harassment and threats by undercover agents, members of a task force, the State Sheriffs, and the Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection,” Ramos said. “What’s worse is many of these businesses are majority-owned by the same working-class immigrant communities that have been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. When compared to other neighborhoods and boroughs, this blatant disparity shows the willingness by our electeds to ignore the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.”

Ramos — who represents Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, and parts of Corona, Woodside and Astoria, some of the neighborhoods that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 —  said her office has tried to meet with SLA Chairman Vincent Bradley, but just received a response to a letter this week.

“What came to light was that there are many state agencies involved in the regulation of these small business but there is no real coordination of those businesses; they’re not talking to each other and they have no idea what’s going on,” Ramos said.

Ramos said the SLA claims to be doing this to prevent the further spread of the disease, but that recent data shows there isn’t a correlation with the areas that have seen upticks in the virus with those where the businesses are getting fined.

According to the SLA, inspections made by its officers are not discriminatory.

“This is about protecting public health — and from Madison Avenue to Maspeth to Montauk, we will take action against anyone who puts New Yorkers in danger. Saying that establishments in Queens have been disproportionately targeted is simply false,” an SLA spokesperson said. “We will continue to take action against the small number of establishments who willfully violate coronavirus-related regulations, placing both lives and New York’s re-opening at risk.”

About 28 percent of the charges made against businesses allegedly violating COVID-19 protocols in New York City, were made against Queens business, which is roughly the same percentage of the New York City population made up by Queens residents, according to the SLA.

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Chinatown, another neighborhood that has been impacted disproportionately from the pandemic, brought some of her small business owners to tell their stories.

“Our businesses are being targeted unfairly. Our businesses are suffering because of the right hand not speaking to the left hand,” Niou said.

Niou said there is a disconnect in outreach between city agencies and small business owners, especially when there are language barriers.

“We need clarity. We need understanding. We don’t just need fines, regulations and prohibitions without any kind of clarity,” Niou said. “We want everyone to do things in a safe and consistent manner but you need to come and talk to our communities to see what works for us.”

President of the New York State Latino Restaurant and Bar Association Jeffrey Garcia said the government assistance small business have received are being taken away with the harsh rules.

“It’s unfortunate that the governor and the mayor have not been able to come together,” Garcia said. “Not only are we getting fined, but we can’t even open up at at least 50 percent capacity the way our adjoining counties have.”

Mike Vendome, owner of Nino’s AQ on Ditmars Boulevard, said he saw plainclothes SLA agents secretly recording customers and have had police caravans with loud speakers saying, “We will take your license, please, outdoor dining cannot be permitted at 11 o’clock.”

“I don’t know how that’s helping anyone,” Vendome said.

Vendome also said that he received a fine from July 19 that just came in the mail. “They can fine us three times and you lose your license before you got the fine — that is not due process.”

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

Karlin Chan of Cha Chan Thang restaurant on Mott Street said he had to move his outdoor dining set three times from one side of the street to the other because of differing regulations from the Department of Transportation and SLA.

“It is time for the mayor and the governor to get together to come up with a plan to help save all these small businesses and not treat ethnic enclaves like a cash cow with fines,” Chan said.

Cuomo put together the New York Forward Reopening Advisory Board months ago. Ramos noted that there are no small business owners in that board.

Marisol Rossi, of Harlem’s Solace Bar & Grill, said her business was hit with eight fines that amount up to $30,000, without counting lawyer fees, “due to an inspection that was performed” while they were closed.

“Governor Cuomo, you need to stop. This is a task force that you put together to crack down on business owners as if we are criminals,” Rossi said. “We are not criminals. We are your essential workers. Our families are depending on us and you’re treating us like criminals.”

Antonia Joannides, owner of Queen’s Room on Ditmars Boulevard, spoke about her experiences with the city agency, including plainclothes SLA agents taking notes before identifying themselves as representatives.

“These are trying times, as business owners we’re doing our best. Instead of being recognized, we’re being scrutinized and punished,” Joannides said. “We’re under constant surveillance, waiting for the moment we pull our masks down to take a breath. We didn’t ask for this.”

Some business owners also spoke about rules that put them at risk, like policing their area or making sure their customers follow social distancing guidelines.

“Most of these alleged violations has to do with the governor’s executive orders,” one Queens business owner said. “He wants us to police the streets. He wants us to be responsible for 100 feet from our storefronts. We have been assaulted and verbally abused for trying to force people to wear masks or for trying to force people to stop lingering around in public property.”

While each had their own experiences, they all spoke about the frustration and strain their mental health has undergone due to the impacts of the pandemic and the inconsistencies from leaders.

Chef Tami Treadwell of Harlem Seafood Soul cart shared her devastating story. She lost her husband and an employee to COVID-19. She’s applied to government aid programs, but hasn’t received any.

“I’m desperately trying to give back to the community I grew up in,” Treadwell said. “Don’t forget us here in Harlem.”

This story was updated with a statement from the SLA at 4:56 p.m., on Aug. 19, 2020.