State Liquor Authority’s unjust enforcement deadly to lockdown-strained bars, eateries

The State Liquor Authority, not COVID-19, is the biggest threat to newly relaunched indoor dining in New York City. While the infection rate outside a handful of neighborhoods remains barely more than 1 percent — and death and hospitalization rates are at rock bottom — the state booze Gestapo’s reign of restaurant terror runs on 100-proof malice.

With the launch of limited-capacity indoor dining, restaurateurs especially fear harassment for supposedly letting customers use their in-house bars, which is strictly forbidden.

An actual violation would be reprehensible and deserving of punishment. But it would take only a single, anonymous 311 call to dispatch an SLA squad and bring a place to its knees when there is no basis for it.

That was exactly what happened over the outdoors-only summer when inspectors chased false tips of customers eating inside. Many were phoned in by competitors or by neighbors cranky over the expansion of outdoor dining into their parking spaces. My restaurateur friend who has been in the business for decades and strictly adhered to the law said he never felt so intimidated as when SLA agents barged in and third-degreed him like “Law & Order” detectives.

Gov. Cuomo, who has yet to find a private-enterprise industry he can stand, proudly boasted this week that his SLA yanked licenses for 16 more state establishments over COVID-19 rules violations, bringing the total to 217 since outdoor dining began in July. The vast majority were in the city.

The crackdown has unconscionably served to milk already-squeezed businesses of cash to fill state coffers. It’s random, vindictive and often personal. Hearings before a three-person SLA panel are kangaroo courts where the verdict often is, “Pay or die.”

Meanwhile, as the all-thumbs SLA earned publicity for targeting high-profile spots such as White Horse Tavern, Cipriani Downtown and Nello, its snoops somehow overlooked obvious, broad-daylight violations. Bars in my East 70s neighborhood set up sidewalk stands for months that were clearly meant for food-free boozing — yet the SLA didn’t lay a glove on them.

The agency shrugged off demands by dozens of state lawmakers to cease harassing restaurants and hitting them with “exorbitant” fines. Although The Post recently prodded the SLA to re-license Staten Island’s beloved Joyce’s Tavern, owner Claire O’Toole had to pony up a $20,000 fine — murder on a small business.

It was one of hundreds of shakedowns over alleged violations for which the agency had scant evidence and for the behavior of customers over which the owners had no control.

Did Joyce’s license-yanking have anything to do with the fact that O’Toole had earlier joined in a lawsuit aimed at making the state loosen restrictions? Now, why would you ever think that?

The agency muscled iconic White Horse Tavern to pay a whopping $50,000 fine to get its liquor license back. The owner, Eytan Sugarman, had no blight on his 20-year record in the restaurant business. He pleaded after the July raid that he couldn’t be responsible for controlling crowds on the street — a job for the NYPD.

But SLA honchos rejected his reasonable defense — and his ­offer to pay a $40,000 fine. They tacked on $10,000 more. The White Horse reopened, but the long-term damage from two months’ closure ­remains to be seen.

Restaurants offering indoor dining at one-quarter capacity need all the help they can get. The limit will hopefully rise to 50 percent in November. But the SLA could kill off Gotham’s fragile restaurant renaissance first, place by place and drop by drop.

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