The start of the weekend among the bars and clubs of Manhattan’s Lower East Side looked — and felt — more as if the end of one. Empty cabs rolled down darkened streets, past lonely food carts plopped on sidewalks where few pedestrians scurried by. Some venues closed, while others worried they might be next if officials further limited capacity or closed establishments to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“The vibe is feeling like getting your last social interaction in before the inevitable lack of interaction,” said Leah Dixon, a co-owner of Beverly’s, a small cocktail bar on Essex Street.
A century after being one of the densest neighborhoods in the country thanks to waves of immigrants, today’s gentrified Lower East Side is a night life mecca. Its streets are lined with hip restaurants, bars, small clubs and music venues that usually pulse with packed crowds.
Yet even before city officials ordered venues to cut their capacity in half to reduce the risk of transmission, business had begun to slip at many places, and by Friday night the muted mood was palpable. Officials at the city’s Office of Nightlife have been offering guidance on how to apply for business grants and loans now being offered by the city, and on how to operate while reducing exposure.
“As a longtime bar owner, I understand the fear the night life community is feeling,” said Ariel Palitz, the office’s senior executive director. “People tell me they’re worried about their health, the well-being of their patrons, employees and their livelihood.”
D.J.s, bands, bartenders, bouncers and wait staff are trying to figure out how they will weather this catastrophe, since many of them depend on freelance gigs and service jobs to survive.
The bans on large gatherings announced by New York officials on Thursday mirror similar efforts around the country and world as governments try to slow the spread of infection. City officials in Hoboken, N.J., announced on Saturday that they were shutting down bars and only allowing restaurants to conduct takeout and delivery services. And ominous signs are appearing overseas, as the French government took the drastic step of shuttering clubs, cafes and theaters on Saturday.
The city’s first weekend under the new rules comes after an increasingly nervous population realizes the blurry future they are confronting. Some places took no chances and shut down, leaving once bustling dining rooms looking more like well-appointed stage sets waiting to stir back to life. Other places kept their doors open, struggling to keep their staff employed.
“I’m giving my staff the option of what they want to do,” said Cliff Cho, owner of Fat Buddha Bar on Avenue A, where D.J.s entertained some 25 customers on Friday night. “Most of them want to work. But I also want people to feel safe.”
Mr. Cho had just reopened his place in late October, eight months after having closed because of extensive damage from an apartment fire three floors above. He still hasn’t had an official grand reopening, but he is looking to apply for a Small Business Administration loan to pay the rent and his staff. If not, he’s unsure if he can weather the crisis relying on a nightly customer tally that is a fraction of the old days.
“This is our bread and butter,” he said. “Some weekends we get 400 people coming through. Now, I’d be happy if 100 showed up. Maybe I should throw a party in my local supermarket, since it’s so packed.”
Rachel Joan can relate. The 26-year-old comic performed a set for the seven patrons who were at Old Man Hustle Comedy Bar on Essex Street. Her routine? Jokes about hand washing, supermarket panic runs and Lysol. “We’re all risking our lives for standup comedy,” she said. The audience responded with nervous laughter.
“It’s bizarre doing standup in the middle of all this,” she admitted. “But it feels like it’s what I should be doing. It wasn’t a paid spot. That’s how you know I really want to do it.”
Yet at Hard Swallow, the place was packed with revelers who cheered at the gyrations of scantily dressed go-go dancers in clown makeup. In the back, one performer, Alaska, rested on a bed of nails.
“This is how I get coronavirus!” Alaska shouted to the dive bar’s crowd. Afterward, Alaska, who is also an assistant manager of the bar, was a little more subdued. “Performing is my main source of income,” they said. “If I can’t perform or I can’t dance, I can’t pay rent. I actually did a show last week where only one person showed up.”
Big Lee and Sasha Lloyd, Hard Swallow’s owners, are concerned about their staff as much as they are proud of the place they have carved out in the community, but business has slumped by almost a third.
“Closing for us is not an option,” Big Lee said. “I want to act like we’re here, we’re hanging and this is going to be OK”
For how long is another question. While he had prepared for St. Patrick’s Day by hiring extra staff and buying more beer and liquor, the parade’s cancellation now has him in a tight spot. Normally, he’d make enough on St. Patrick’s to cover his $12,000 monthly rent. Now Big Lee worries if he can cover it a day at a time.
He and his wife are still unsure whether the city and state may impose other regulations in the coming days and weeks. And they are waiting to see if there is aid for which they may qualify for.
“We got a dollar and a dream,” Sasha said. “We are going to work it out. I just hope the Feds step up and provide relief, because we are bleeding.”