Syracuse’s 443 Social Club writes an Open Letter to Governor Cuomo

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the whole world, either directly, or indirectly. As a response to the pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has passed legislation that the states hope will help regulate COVID-19’s impact on the state. While guidelines for life during a pandemic are important, the broadness of certain rules has put many small businesses at risk of extinction. 443 social club

443 Social Club

One of those venues, The 443 Social Club & Lounge in Syracuse is a place where those fond of live music can appreciate the ambience of a nice night out. A hub of live entertainment in their town, this restaurant seats 88 people but, as a result of the pandemic, it has operated with only 36-person capacity to meet state guidelines.

While the reduced customer base hurt business, it had allowed a mom-and-pop style business to stay afloat. That is until, a new wrinkle in New York state’s coronavirus guidelines for bars, restaurants and similar venues in New York state prohibits them from offering live music that customers pay for separately. The rule forced an immediate halt to The 443’s business. While they offer eatery, their main form of attraction is their live music. 

Although we have all had to deal with the effects from COVID-19, actions like this towards small businesses still tug at the heart, knowing that hardworking individuals are in danger of losing their businesses, through no fault of their own. 

The 443 Social Club & Lounge has chosen to take action, posting a letter to Governor Cuomo on their website that details, among other things, their compliance to COVID-19 rules, their determined attempts at keeping their business afloat, as well as the city’s mishandling of its small businesses. The letter is heartwarming and brings up questions, including ‘What was Governor Cuomo thinking with this new rule?’, and ‘How could they not have implemented any verbiage for small-capacity lounges?’ Let’s hope The 443 and other small businesses get an opportunity to get back on their feet, sooner rather than later.

Read below for The 443 Social Club & Lounge letter to Governor Cuomo, as originally posted on their website and socials. 

Dear Mr. Cuomo –

I am a small business owner in Central New York. My husband and I operate an 88 seat cafe/bar that features listening room style acoustic performances. We had just celebrated our one year anniversary when COVID-19 hit.

When we closed our doors on March 15, I understood we would likely be shuttered for at least a few months. I understood we would be among the very last businesses allowed to reopen. There was a certain relief in letting go and accepting it, in understanding it was completely beyond my control. I had faith we would receive some kind of aid to help get us through, and for while we did.

I watched your daily press conferences religiously. With the vacuum in national leadership, I was grateful to be living in NY, grateful we had someone taking charge of the situation. Your no-nonsense, fact-based daily briefings were oddly comforting, even when NY’s numbers were high and the news you were sharing certainly wasn’t good.

Spring turned into summer and New York began it’s cautious, phased reopen.

We were busy reimagining our business so we’d be ready to go once CNY made it through the first few phases. We knew we would be facing an entirely new reality and there wasn’t a single aspect of our business that didn’t get retooled.

You can find the complete outline of what we did HERE

We are classified as a restaurant, so we planned to reopen when indoor dining resumed in Phase 4. I checked with Empire State Development at the end of June to clarify the rules on live music. While we are classified as a restaurant, music is definitely our main focus. I was told it was allowed as “small scale entertainment”.

Well, it doesn’t get much smaller scale than our place, especially since we were going to be operating at about 40% capacity – just 36 people. We waited another month just to be sure numbers didn’t spike with everyone moving around again before we started planning a very limited schedule.

And then things got weird.

You declared food must be ordered by anyone who wanted an alcoholic beverage. The intention was to keep people seated, I get that, but keeping people seated was not an issue at our place to begin with. Our guests were anxious to comply with the rules, but not always hungry when they arrived. So, sometimes they placed to-go orders to eat later, which didn’t really accomplish anything. It disrupted the natural rhythm of service, where guests used to relax and enjoy their first drink before ordering, and worst of all, it meant the entire room ordered their food at exactly the same time. It was a logistical nightmare for our tiny food prep area and I had to schedule another person to help at a time when we could least afford it.

But, we were settling into a groove and figuring it all out. We planned to take advantage of the last 6 weeks of good weather and outdoor shows when you dropped the hammer.

On August 18 I learned about the new SLA rules prohibiting us from advertising or charging a fee for live music. I read it, then reread it, incredulous.

Prior to COVID, almost all our shows had a fee associated with them. It’s the only way the business model works financially in a small room and it’s important to us that everyone is paid fairly. With drastically reduced capacity, cover charges and tickets are more important than ever. We thought more venues charging for live music was one of the few bright spots in this whole mess…it’s healthy for our music scene to put a financial value back into the experience. And obviously, tickets are the best way to control a crowd.

The ban on advertising music is astonishingly cruel. We are all doing our level best to make our limited capacity work and now you’re telling us we cannot advertise to fill the few seats we do have? Are we are supposed to just open our doors and hope for the best?

We closed our doors again, wasting thousands of dollars we spent to reopen.

Governor Cuomo, we are DROWNING.

We are frantically treading water to keep our noses above the surface until (hopefully) some federal aid comes through. You looked at us, and instead of throwing us a life preserver you handed us a cinder block and told us to keep treading water.

The last 6 weeks of warm weather might have sustained our businesses for a bit longer, but the new guidelines have taken away even that flimsy lifeline.

In your August 9 press conference, the very last question was about bringing back live entertainment and Broadway. You said there were no plans to reopen “Broadway and other indoor, high-density arenas”.

And this is the main point of my letter.

“Live Entertainment” is far more than Broadway and far more than “high-density arenas”…and literally nobody is suggesting we open those things right now.

It is small rooms like mine that don’t even come near the 50 person gathering limit.

It is wineries and breweries who have acres of wide-open space to spread out their guests.

It is the venues who cut their capacity down to almost nothing and are doing a hybrid of a small live performance + paid live stream.

It is the rooms that moved all their events to their parking lot or back yard.

It’s different for everyone, but tickets and advertising are fundamentally necessary whether we are trying to fill 20 seats, 200 seats, or 2000.

And yes, live entertainment is also crowded rooms and mosh pits and huge amphitheaters packed full of people. We aren’t asking for that. Nobody is asking for that. We are asking you to allow hundreds of small businesses across New York State to be allowed to reopen and run their venues with all reasonable precautions in place. We have spent thousands of dollars to adapt to do it as safely as possible because we understand and respect how serious COVID-19 is.

But you know what else is serious?

Losing a business we’ve invested our life savings into. Putting our staff out of work. Our city losing one of its few dedicated music venues. Musicians losing a place to ply their craft. Our community of music lovers losing their gathering place.

You have told us we have 99.2% compliance with bars and restaurants right now. Why are the 99.2% paying such a steep price for the non-compliant .8%?

We have waited patiently throughout this whole saga and watched every other industry open up without any corresponding spikes in cases. For the most part, we haven’t even been part of the conversation. But time is running out. Many of us will be closing our doors for good in the next few weeks.

We are about to become collateral damage in the war on COVID-19, and Governor Cuomo – I know this is not your intention.

I know you have a lot going on and “live music” probably sounds like a hobby people are supposed to give up once they get out of college. WE ARE MORE THAN THAT. We are musicians, venue owners, sound and light techs, production, security, hospitality. We are savvy, smart, creative, and ridiculously hardworking. We feed other businesses like hotels, restaurants, and shops, plus our everyday vendors – trash, payroll, insurance, linen service, food, and liquor. We are the first ones to donate and support fundraisers for our neighbors in need. We are a port in the storm where you can forget about all that’s wrong in the world, if only for a few hours.

We are respectfully asking for the chance to try and salvage our businesses before it’s too late.


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