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Businesses cited for packed bars, secret drinking room during COVID-19 checks

Among the seven Suffolk court summonses was one

Among the seven Suffolk court summonses was one for Island Hookah in Shirley, which Suffolk County Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said ignored warnings to close, though at the time it was deemed a nonessential business. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Bars packed with people standing and drinking alcohol. A secret basement drinking and gambling room underneath a grocery store. Gyms opening months before state regulations allowed.

Those are among the alleged COVID-19-related violations by Long Island businesses that county and state officials said led to court summonses or charges by the State Liquor Authority.

From May 29 to Sept. 17, the SLA issued charges against 119 Long Island businesses that sell alcohol, suspending the liquor licenses of 11. The Nassau County fire marshal's office issued 23 court summonses for alleged offenses related to COVID-19, and the Suffolk County Police Department handed out seven.

DOX Bar & Kitchen in Island Park got a liquor-license suspension and a summons after a June 27 visit by investigators with the SLA and the Nassau fire marshal’s office. The visit occurred after repeated warnings, according to the SLA.

On June 27, there were 235 patrons on the DOX patio, which has a legal capacity of 42, a SLA statement said.

The fire marshal’s office issued a summons for "willful violation of public health laws," one of the two most common COVID-19 charges, along with obstructing governmental administration.

The fire marshal also hit DOX with numerous alleged fire code violations, which it also did to other businesses after coronavirus-related inspections.

DOX co-owner Norah Kelleher declined to comment.

The SLA suspended the liquor licenses of Southampton restaurants Blu Mar Hamptons and 75 Main, both owned by Zach Erdem, in late August after alleged violations that included people dancing to a DJ with neither masks nor social distancing, an exotic dancer on top of a bar and employees not wearing face coverings.

The SLA charged the bars with a combined 49 violations, 15 of them related to COVID-19, the SLA said. Other alleged violations included serving alcohol to an 18-year-old undercover agent.

With each violation carrying a maximum $10,000 fine, Erdem faced up to $490,000 in penalties, plus potential revocation of his liquor licenses. He ended up settling with the SLA for fines that totaled a fraction of that: $60,000. The SLA board accepted the offer on Sept. 2, the SLA said. The agency typically settles for amounts well below the maximum penalty, officials said.

Erdem said the license suspensions cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue from alcohol sales, which comprise about 90% of his restaurants’ profits.

Erdem said he never intended to violate regulations. The dancer, for example, was hired for a bachelor party, and "we didn’t know who they were and what they were bringing," he said.

He said he has fired multiple employees for not wearing face coverings and that employees now are monitoring social distancing and other regulations more stringently.

Erdem said he doesn’t begrudge the SLA and said the agency should step up enforcement, because other Hamptons businesses regularly violate the orders.

"They’re doing the right thing," he said of the SLA. "If you don’t do that, you’re going to see people packed into restaurants."

The alleged concealed drinking room at Sazon Ramirez II grocery in Roosevelt included a jukebox, a large-screen television and electronic gambling devices, said Jack Sterne, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Twenty-four people were found drinking alcohol either there or in the main part of the store when investigators from the SLA and other enforcement agencies visited on Aug. 23, he said. The SLA suspended the store's liquor license, but the license was reinstated after the business paid $35,000 in penalties, SLA records show. The owners could not be reached for comment.

The SLA also suspended the license of Secrets Gentlemen's Club in Deer Park, where investigators on July 17 observed dancers giving lap dances and sharing the same stage pole. The owner was caught on videotape bragging to undercover agents about getting away with the violations of the COVID-19 orders, an SLA statement said. The owners could not be reached for comment.

Of the 485 Nassau fire marshal violation notices through July 16, the most common offense — in 210 cases — was for a nonessential business operating when it was not allowed to open, a review of the documents found.

Island Athletics in Manorhaven was given two summonses, on April 2 and May 30, after fire marshal investigators found people working out at the gym. The April 2 case was voided, according to the Nassau County district attorney’s office. Arraignment is pending in the May 30 case. Voids typically occur when there is insufficient paperwork or a charge can’t be sustained, the DA’s office said.

Owner Chad Gross insisted in an interview that his business had a legal right to operate, and he said that even after the May 30 summons, "I never closed."

Gross said people who worked out at the gym were covered under state guidelines allowing group gatherings — an assertion Assistant Chief Fire Marshal Michael Uttaro challenged.

All nonessential gatherings in New York were barred before May 22, with groups of up to 10 people allowed by the time the second summons was given to Gross. But gyms in April and May were still covered by an executive order to "cease operation."

Another common fire marshal violation was on-premises dining before it was allowed.

Das Biergarten in East Atlantic Beach was warned April 8 about alleged on-premises service and given a summons on May 15 after allegedly serving customers on-premises again, fire marshal records show.

In addition, the SLA filed charges against the business on July 1 after investigators on two dates witnessed alleged violations that included patrons drinking while ignoring social distancing, patrons buying takeout alcohol without the required food accompaniment and employees not wearing face coverings.

Owner Andrew Hetzler declined to comment.

One of the 12 fire marshal violations for gatherings that exceeded state limits was for the April 22 wedding for the daughter of Cedarhurst Village Justice Andrew Goldsmith in the side yard of his Cedarhurst home. Nassau police said at the time there were 100 guests and onlookers.

A fire marshal summary of the incident said Goldsmith had asked Nassau police for permission to hold the wedding and was told no. Goldsmith then contacted Uttaro, who told him a maximum of 10 people could attend, the summary said.

Brian Griffin, a Garden City attorney representing Goldsmith, said his calls to the police and fire marshal, and the cancellation of a planned large wedding, showed he tried to adhere to regulations. He accused the fire marshal of "overzealous enforcement."

He said the fire marshal’s office told Goldsmith to limit the wedding to the family, wedding party and witnesses, which Goldsmith did.

There were "approximately 10 people" at the wedding, but some people — under 100 — who were not invited stopped and gathered to watch, Griffin said.

Among the seven Suffolk court summonses was one for Island Hookah in Shirley, which Suffolk County Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said ignored warnings to close though at the time it was deemed a nonessential business. After an undercover police officer on April 23 bought cigars in the store, it was given the summons, records show.

Christopher P. McGuire, a Central Islip attorney for the store, said his client is entering a not-guilty plea. He declined to respond to the allegations.