COVID Crackdown: Hundreds of restaurants lose liquor licenses

NEW YORK (WABC) -- The crackdown continues into what investigators are calling unsafe dining conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. There's a big item at stake - the owner's liquor license.

"It's really, really, really difficult right now," Angel Tenesaca said. He owns Picante Mexican Restaurant in Harlem.

He says he hasn't seen his restaurant as empty as it is since he first opened more than a decade ago. He's down to just four workers and a third of his usual sales, but that wasn't the case a few months ago. He was quite busy when he opened his patio for outdoor dining this summer.

"We lost our license, so now we are in serious trouble," Tenesaca said.

The New York State Liquor Authority temporarily suspended his license in August for violating executive orders during the pandemic.

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Investigators said the restaurant had an illegal bar window, people without facial coverings, and business hours past the city's curfew.

"My mistake was to not close at 11, I was closing at 2 o'clock in the morning, so that was my big mistake," he said.

It's a mistake he believes he has been paying for with a shutdown bar and a decline in sales.

"Unfortunately, people they want to have an experience with alcohol," Tenesaca said.

So far, the state has suspended more than 200 liquor licenses since the pandemic started. Most of those licenses are in the New York City area. Bars and restaurants paid more than $1.1 million in fines. Dozens of bar and restaurant owners are still negotiating to get their licenses back.

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For a business to get their liquor license back, they agree to pay a fine that's approved by the State Liquor Authority board in Albany. So far, individual businesses have paid anywhere between $4,000 to $50,000 each.

It's a process that can take some time.

"I'm in a waiting game," Tenesaca said.

Six weeks later, the board voted to reinstate Tenesaca's license in exchange for a $25,000 fine.

The director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, Andrew Rigie, says there should be more focus on training and educating businesses on how to operate safely.

"They've made a mistake and they've had to pay big time for it, so I think what we need to do is everything to help support these local restaurants and bars comply with these local safety protocols," Rigie said.

They are protocols that will be in place until the pandemic is over.

The New York State Liquor Authority released a statement to 7 On Your Side Investigates saying:

"Our goal is to protect public health, not collect fines or suspend licenses, and in an ideal world we would not issue a single violation because every bar and restaurant would comply with the state's public health rules. In reality, we use suspensions only in the most egregious cases -- which is why almost 70,000 inspections have led to just 166 suspensions. When an establishment's license is suspended, we immediately engage with them on next steps, and in more than half of cases the bar or restaurant's license has already been reinstated."

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