Brooklyn businesses brace for COVID-19 shutdown

Matt Hogan Irish Haven
Matt Hogan, owner of Irish Haven, said the closures will hit hard around St. Patrick’s Day.
Photo by Paulo Basseto

Brooklyn business owners and staff prepared for the worst ahead of the Mayoral executive order to shut down or reduce operations of most establishments in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Now that it’s in place, some workers are fearing deep cuts to their livelihoods.

“We have a lot of people here that this is what they depend for most of their income and I’m one of them,” said Ellen O’Shea, a 10-year bartender at Freddy’s Bar on Fifth Avenue. “I’ll have to file for unemployment and start buying some Ramen I guess — it definitely hit for real real today.”

Many workers like O’Shea face uncertain times now that Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the March 16 executive order, which limits restaurants, bars, and cafés to take out and delivery, while completely shuttering nightclubs, movie theaters, theater houses, and concert venues. The executive order, meant to curtail the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, went into effect at 9 am on March 17.

Governor Andrew Cuomo later on Monday announced that the state — along with New Jersey and Connecticut — would introduce the same limits to bars and restaurants at 8 pm on March 16. 

The owner of a nearby tavern said that bars not serving food will be hardest hit, especially given the recently-cancelled St. Patrick’s day festivities and because they can’t fall back deliveries.

“It’s tough when you sell beer and spirits,” said Matt Hogan of Fourth Avenue’s Irish Haven. “The timing of it couldn’t be worse with St. Patrick’s Day.”

The pub owner cancelled all of their events for the Emerald Isle-themed celebrations, which usually is essential to keeping the business afloat, according to Hogan.

“We’ve managed to operate on razor thin margins and we have put up a safety net against things, but it’s going to hurt for sure,” he said. “But we realize the social responsibility for not spreading the virus.”

In Prospect Heights, the owner of the local staple diner Tom’s is gearing up to reduce his operations to a skeleton staff that will dish up their comfort foods for deliveries and take out only, at a time when business usually starts picking up after a winter lull.

“Spring is when people start getting some money in their pockets, it’s when things come a little more to life for us,” said Jimmy Kokotas, the third-generation owner of the restaurant.

The spread of the respiratory disease also halted the long-awaited reopening of the historic restaurant Gage and Tollner on Fulton Street scheduled for March 15, but owners were optimistic the ancient business would withstand this crisis, too.

“Gage and Tollner has already survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu epidemic, and Prohibition — it will survive this as well,” the owners said in an emailed statement. “We will re-open Gage & Tollner as soon as we feel it’s the responsible thing to do — and when we do, what a magnificently grand re-opening it will be.”

Meanwhile, the owners of one Williamsburg board game store said they saw an uptick in sales during the weekend, due to Brooklynites stocking up on activities to keep them busy while quarantined indoors.

“There was a lot of people this weekend who knew they were going to be indoors for the foreseeable future and looking for things to do to keep them sane and occupied,” said Louis Chato, one of the owners of Twenty-Sided Store on Grand Street.

Entertainment outside of the home came to a standstill, however, and one Coney Island playwright worried that the mostly freelancing artists would struggle to pay their bills.

“I think everybody’s priority is real life, but performers are generally freelancers or have a part-time job in the service industry and people are freaking out about loosing their gigs,” said Dick Zigun, who had to call off a years-in-the-works rock opera due to the outbreak.

Zigun cancelled the show he co-wrote about a brain-eating jukebox and said he and his fellow artists were scrambling to figure out how to not have all their work be for naught.

“It’s devastating because for an Off-Off-Broadway theater company, you can’t just pause a show and bring it back two three months later. There’ll have to be casting changes, we’ll have to restart rehearsal,” he said.

Kokotas — the owner of Tom’s — hoped that the spread of the virus will be contained soon if New Yorkers band together and self-quarantine as much as possible.

“If everybody’s responsible and self-quarantines, I think we can put the worst of this behind us, it’s gotta be a group effort,” the restaurateur said.