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Petition pushes to ease restrictions on bars, restaurants in orange zones

Mike Martinez
The 2020 Rochester Cocktail Revival hosted a seated mezcal tasting and seminar on September 8, at Jackrabbit Club.

Jonathan Swan said he’s tried to stay positive about Rochester's restaurant business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Swan, who owns Swan Dive, Daily Refresher and several other East End restaurants, reached a breaking point in November.

That's when New York state designated that ZIP code an orange zone, an area where COVID-19 cases are high.

“And I kind of thought it wasn’t fair to the community to keep painting this picture that we’re OK, because we’re not,” said Swan. 

New York state’s cluster initiative said restaurants in orange zones must close at 10 p.m., and only serve outdoors with a maximum of four people at a table. With Rochester’s weather, most of these businesses are offering takeout or delivery only. Swan said these restrictions have pushed many businesses to the brink. 

“We can only do takeout,” said Swan. “That drastically impacts our sales and drastically impacts the amount of people we can have on staff. 

“I also think it unfairly puts the mark of the virus on a location based on where we are,” Swan continued. “Just by driving into the orange zone doesn’t give you the virus.”

Swan said he'd accept additional precautions in exchange for a return to limited indoor seating. 

Chuck Cerankosky owns Good Luck, Cure, The Jack Rabbit Club, and several other bars and restaurants in Rochester. Like Swan, he believes that singling out ZIP codes is counterproductive.

“What this seems to say as a symbol from Albany to our city or any community in the orange zone,” said Cerankosky, “is that 'COVID is your fault, restaurants, and you’re going to get punished for it.' And it's not only confusing, it's enraging and it's wrong.”

He also said the cluster initiative is faulty. Cerankosky cites data from Cuomo’s office that said a little over 1 percent of all positive cases come from bars and restaurants, many of which remain open in nearby ZIP codes.  

“We have operators that haven’t made money all year,” said Cerankosky, “[They] won’t be able to feed their families. And we have thousands of people out of work because of a labeling system that the state is using to steer policy.”

That’s why Swan and Cerankosky launched a petition called Save Rochester Restaurants and Bars a week ago. They say more than 1,000 people and hundreds of businesses have signed on. A similar petition is circulating in Syracuse. A class action lawsuit is being launched by bars and eateries in Buffalo.

Swan and Cerankosky are hoping to have the success that another industry had last month when Cuomo eased orange zone restrictions on gyms, barbers, and salons. Those businesses have been allowed to reopen with additional restrictions, such as coronavirus test requirements for staff and further limiting capacity.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.