NYC Gay, Lesbian Bars, COVID-Beleagured, Get Creative

Despite hardships, Henrietta Hudson’s owner, Lisa Cannistraci, is confident her bar will open again after the pandemic.
Henrietta Hudson/ Molly Adams

Two months after the drinks suddenly stopped flowing at queer watering holes across New York City, owners of those bars are blunt about the impact of coronavirus on their establishments.

“COVID-19 has shattered people’s dreams,” said Alexi Minko, the owner of the four-year-old Harlem gay bar Alibi Lounge. Like many other businesses, Minko had to lay off staff members when the city shut down in mid-March. “We’re broke. We still have to pay for insurance, we still have to pay for rent, electricity, and phone.”

The hardships are especially frustrating realities for bars like Alibi, which is a rare social space for queer people of color in the city’s white-dominated bar scene, and Henrietta Hudson, a long-running lesbian bar in the West Village that serves as a much-needed nightlife option in a city where so many LGBTQ venues cater to gay men.

“We are one of maybe two lesbian bars in New York, so I think we have to stay open,” said Henrietta Hudson’s owner, Lisa Cannistraci, who directed her staff to apply for unemployment when she saw the “writing on the wall” in March. “But I cannot pay any rent while we are closed because I have no revenue.”

Neither of those bars have been able to secure government relief, leaving them to fend for themselves despite a lack of income.

It remains unclear when New York City restaurants and bars will be allowed to open again, and it is even more uncertain when they will be able to operate without restrictions on capacity. Cannistraci said restrictive operations would not yield enough revenue anyway, so she plans to wait “until I can open 100 percent.”

Alibi Lounge, a Black-owned Harlem gay bar, is teetering on the brink during the coronavirus era.Facebook/ Alibi Lounge

Until then, those bars and other queer establishments are getting innovative. Alibi Lounge is offering a “social distancing happy hour” featuring slushies and cocktails-to-go from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m., an idea that is also being employed by other venues like The Ritz., a gay bar and lounge in Hell’s Kitchen. The Ritz launched a social media campaign informing folks that the establishment is selling drinks-to-go from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m on select days and is including fun giveaways with every drink. The bar handed out T-shirts with every large cocktail on May 13 and is planning to give away a “picnic style swag bag” on May 16.

While Henrietta Hudson is avoiding the drinks-to-go idea, Cannistraci said the bar is hosting live comedy events on Zoom and featuring virtual DJs from Thursday through Sunday. In the near future, Cannistraci is planning to open an online retail shop where she intends to sell merchandise like hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and maybe even cigarette lighters and dog clothing.

Meanwhile, Boxers, a gay sports bar with three different outposts sprinkled across Manhattan, is stepping up to offer a food pantry for those in need on May 16. Folks can stop by their Washington Heights location at 3820 Broadway and 159th Street anytime from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on that day to pick up a bag of groceries.

Many bars, including Henrietta Hudson and Alibi Lounge, have also launched GoFundMe campaigns in attempts to at least draw some cash from supporters. Alibi Lounge has raised just $395 of its $6,000 goal, while Henrietta Hudson has leaned on its dedicated base of customers dating back three decades to bring in $21,718 of its $40,000 target thus far. GoFundMe pages are also active for other queer spots, including Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Bar, which has yielded north of $9,000 in a fundraiser for its staff members.

Alibi Lounge, which was launched in 2016 when Minko sought to fill the void of gay bars and Black-owned spaces in Harlem, entered the coronavirus pandemic having already endured tumultuous times as of late. The bar was hit multiple times by a vandal who torched Rainbow Flags at the bar before and after the huge Pride Month celebration last year as the city celebrated Stonewall 50 and hosted WorldPride. After the first attack, months passed before authorities finally nabbed the suspect.

When asked how much longer the bar, located at 2376 Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard near West 139th Street, can tolerate the crisis and survive, Minko offered a bleak prognosis.

In one of 54 reported hate crimes targeting LGBTQ people in New York City last year, Rainbow Flags were set on fire at Alibi Lounge, a gay bar in Harlem.Twitter/ @Lounge_Alibi

“Not much longer,” he said. “We are at a crossroads pretty much. We are literally counting the days, meaning that if in a number of days things don’t somehow come back, we might not be able to survive. And those days we are counting are not that many.”

Things are looking a little less dire for Cannistraci, who, despite financial woes and an uncertain future, is maintaining optimism and remains hopeful that the bar’s popularity will help it rebound when this is all over.

“It’s not in my character to just give up,” she said “Nobody wants us to close. We will reopen this fall, you can quote me.”

Editor’s Note: After this story was published, Cannistraci clarified that she misspoke and had not intended to predict a fall opening.

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