BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The notice on the front door of Gene McCarthy’s said the bar could accommodate only half its usual capacity, a reminder of how the South Buffalo folks had, shall we say, stretched the rules while commiserating there on Sunday over the loss of their beloved St. Patrick’s Day parade.
But shortly after 4 p.m. on Monday, there was no need for such an admonition. There were only half a dozen patrons in the place. Normally, on the eve of St. Paddy’s Day, the iconic First Ward bar in heart of Irish Buffalo would have been hopping with early revelers.
“On the day before St. Patrick’s, a lot of people would get out of work at noon and the bar would be packed,” said Vince Crehan, who married one of the daughters of original owner Gene McCarthy and has been tending bar there for 35 years.
Now, as Western New York braced for the state-ordered shutdown of bars and restaurants, it was like an Irish wake. Come 8 p.m., everything would have to close. And on Tuesday — St. Patrick’s Day — all the bars would be closed. You could wear all the green you like, but you’d be dressed up with no place to go.
Gov. Cuomo had given bars and restaurants some leeway when he announced an indefinite shutdown on Monday. Takeout orders would be permitted, including alcohol-to-go.
“Are we not on the eve of prohibition?” asked Kevin Townsell, who was seated with a few friends at the far end of the bar.
You can still drink at home, he was told. “I don’t drink at home,” said Townsell.
Mayor Jimmy Griffin once famously told folks to stay inside and grab a six-pack during a blizzard. But bars have always been a place for people to gather in difficult times. A favorite bar is like an intimate friend, a sanctuary, a place to ride out a crisis.
But the coronavirus is a rare, unseen menace, a pandemic that demands distance, not shared intimacy. People understand the need to effectively close down society and discourage group gatherings. That doesn’t make it easier to accept.
“I don’t think the timing could be any worse,” said Bill Metzger, who bought McCarthy’s in 2012 (Gene owned it from 1963 to 2006) and began brewing beer there a year later. “We were hoping they could maybe delay this until Wednesday. Oh, well.
“What are you going to do?” Metzger said. “You can cry or you can laugh. I feel empathy for some of the other businesses. We’ll be fine. We’re not going to make any money, but we’ll make it through. Staff is another thing. We’re going to have to cut staff. I feel bad for anyone who has to live day-to-day.”
Metzger said the kitchen would be open with a skeleton staff. Patrons can buy food and growlers of beer through a back window. “Actually, I’m not sure what the legality is,” he said. “We’ll probably be doing a little research. If they can’t come in the bar at all, we’ll have them sit under the tent in the beer garden and wait while we fill their growlers.”
Crehan said he also worries about the staff, which might have to go two months or more without cash flow. The coronavirus is hurting everyone financially, but it seems the little people always get it worst.
“Eight o’clock and that’s it,” Crehan said to two new customers. On the wall behind him was a sign that read, Be Nice Or Leave. “Take-out only after that. I hear they closed the border. They’re closing department stores. I’ve never seen anything like it … “
At 5:30, it was uncommonly slow on Chippewa Street in the city, normally a hive of bar activity on the eve of a holiday. Soho, which had been hopping on Sunday, was closed. You half expected to see tumbleweeds rolling down Chippewa.
The Tap House, situated just east of Delaware, had five patrons inside. Stephanie Smith, the 33-year-old owner, was working behind the bar, alongside a gregarious Florida transplant named Tiffany Windish.
“We’re scared,” said Smith, who bought the business 18 months ago when the previous owners parted ways. “I feel like people are going to riot.”
“It’s like when hurricanes happen,” said Windish. “People do that. When stuff all shuts down, people go and break stuff, steal stuff. Look at Katrina.”
It’s an interesting point. This isn’t a weather calamity, but when establishments are closed and residents told to stay home, police have to be concerned if it might inspire the most sketchy elements of society to do mischief.
Of course, it’s the financial impact that’s truly worrisome for bar and restaurant owners and workers. Having your wallet stolen isn’t as big a deal if it’s empty.
“The government’s going to have to help us out,” Smith said. “How am I going to pay my rent and my bills if I can’t open? At least I’ll have food and liquor to drink at my house.”
Smith said the Tap House will try to offer takeout from 4 to 8, but she didn’t seem terribly enthusiastic. Who’s going to wander Chippewa without being able to go inside? She said having to close for St. Patrick’s is a blow, but she’s more worried about the effects of a prolonged shutdown of a month or more.
“It’s more the conventions that are being canceled and hotel business,” she said. “Eighty percent of our business is hotel traffic. There’s just not enough people who live in this city to sustain the takeout for more than a week.”
She wore a wide smile. You don’t seem angry, she was told. “You can’t do anything but laugh, right? That’s how I feel. What am I going to do about it?”
Smith, who is single, said she can come in and clean the place for the time being. Windish will take the opportunity to get out of Dodge.
“I’m driving to Florida to see my family,” Windish said. “I’ll use it as a vacation. When I found out we were going to be closing, I said, ‘If I’m not going to be able to work or go hang out with friends in bars or go out to eat, what’s the point of sticking around?’ I’m going to go be with my family and go to the beach.”
It has been one crushing blow after another for Greg Andreozzi over the past four or five days. Andreozzi owns Thirsty Buffalo on Elmwood Avenue near Lexington in the city. It’s a big sports bar, popular with the St. Bonaventure crowd.
The Bonnies had an Atlantic 10 tourney game slated for 2 o’clock last Friday. Andreozzi expected 250 Bona alumni to show up to watch. On Thursday, someone from the alumni association called to say the A-10 had canceled the tourney.
The NBA had postponed play earlier in the week. The dominoes were falling. Andreozzi knew it was just a matter of time. On Friday, while driving to the bar, he heard that the NCAA Tournament had been canceled. That was a dagger.
It’s been a long tradition for college hoop fans to gather on the opening Thursday of the NCAAs. By noon, Thirsty Buffalo (formerly Jimmy Macs) would be jammed with fans for the first games, and it would continue through the opening weekend. Now, that was gone.
Then came the news about keeping the bar at half capacity. Finally, on Monday, Gov. Cuomo — not Greg’s favorite person — ordered bars shut at 8 p.m., on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’re a sports bar, so the cancellation of all sports for us is bigger than St. Patty’s Day,” said Andreozzi, who bought the bar 12 years ago. “These are our two busiest weeks of the year. Now they’re our slowest. What hurts the most is bartenders. They have other jobs, but they’re getting closed in other jobs. I have a couple of people who work at RiverWorks. They haven’t been on the schedule in two weeks. All the big parties canceled.
“The industry is going to take a huge hit, and I’m not sure if it’s going to recover fully. That’s my opinion. Obviously, (the coronavirus) is very serious. But it’s going to hurt.”
Andreozzi said he’ll offer takeout, but it’s a small part of his business. He’ll have a St. Patty’s special: Guinness, a shot of Jameson, corned beef and cabbage. People will call ahead and wait curbside. But it’s cheaper for people to buy booze at a liquor store. Why buy from a bar when you can’t come in and sit down?
“It’d be fun if we were busy,” he said. “A lot of people are scared. They’re not coming out. Look at Elmwood. There’s no one on Elmwood. It’s bad. I’ve got rent to pay next week. I’m not making any money this week, and less than that.”
There was actually a decent crowd as it approached 7 p.m., with an hour to go before the bars were mandated to close. Reruns of old basketball games were playing on the TVs.
“A lot of them are regulars, some that I haven’t seen in awhile,” Andreozzi said. “They want to get their last drink in before 8 o’clock, and that’s that.”
Farther up Elmwood, a crowd of about 25 people was around the bar at Coles, a Buffalo institution that celebrated its 85th anniversary in November. The Shatzel family has owned it for nearly half a century. Dave Shatzel Sr. bought the place in 1973, when it was an established legend. Now it’s one of several businesses owned by his son, Mike.
On St. Patrick’s eve, bar manager Stacey Shatzel Gandolfo, sister of Mike, was running the show in the final hour before Cuomo’s shutdown took effect.
On the front door was a sign advertising the March 15 St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was canceled due to the COVID-19. Green lights and shamrocks were strung on the ceiling. NFL news, ubiquitous as ever, was on the television above the bar.
At 7:30, Stacey announced, “Everybody needs to be out in 30 minutes. Literally, the health department called. Thirty minutes, everyone out!”
There was playful camaraderie behind the bar. Bartenders hugged and danced. Who knew when bar life would return to normal? It’s not life and death, like the virus that is sweeping the globe. But it’s livelihoods, and the people who work in bars have a communion among each other and the regulars who gather there.
At around 7:50, Stacey stood up at the end of the bar, raised a glass, and made a little speech: “I love first and foremost, my employees, who come and make this the most beautiful, accepting place.”
She toasted her father, her customers, and the best bleeping place in New York. Then, at 8 on the dot, she told people to get out of the bar.