Vulture: New York Comedy Clubs Demand to Reopen With the Same COVID Rules As Restaurants

Originally published in New York Magazine Vulture on September 22, 2020.

Today, a group of New York comedy-club owners and State Senator Michael Gianaris are demanding that Governor Cuomo allow them to reopen under the same COVID-19 restrictions as the city’s restaurants. The #SaveNYComedy initiative argues that most small venues will be forced to close permanently if nothing is done and that there’s no difference in terms of safety between allowing limited-capacity dining and having people gather to watch a comedian perform.

“I can’t find a single person making these decisions who can explain to me why comedy clubs are any more dangerous than restaurants or bowling alleys that are allowed to operate right now,” Senator Gianaris, who’s known to some as the “Amazon Slayer” for blocking the corporation’s planned Queens headquarters, tells Vulture. “If the restaurants are allowed to have outdoor capacity, why is it any different that you have the same setup but with someone telling jokes? It makes no sense.”

As part of New York’s Phase 4 reopening plan, restaurants can start offering indoor dining on September 30 at 25 percent capacity, with tables spread out, no bar service, servers wearing protective gear, and patrons required to wear masks unless seated at their tables and eating. “At a restaurant, people sitting around the table are talking to each other the whole time, whereas at a comedy club, they’re generally not doing that. They’re staring at the performer,” Gianaris says. “The rule should be applied uniformly for similar venues, and there’s no reason why we’re punishing comedy clubs.”

The Queens-based Gianaris, who previously led the fight for New York to freeze rent payments during the pandemic, also points out that the governor could change this rule immediately. But last week, Cuomo said in a radio interview, “How essential is a comedy club when you’re talking about a possible infection rate? Not to offend people in the comedy club — Lord knows we need to laugh — but those are the calibrations we’re making.”

The New York Comedy Coalition, meanwhile, has a lengthy proposal that details the clubs’ — including the Comedy Cellar, QED Astoria, Gotham, and New York Comedy Club — plans for reopening. Among the guidelines are rules about capacity at the distanced tables, no congregating among patrons, tickets for all shows to allow for contact tracing, and performers standing at least ten feet away from the audience. Gianaris had set up a meeting with the club owners and Cuomo’s advisers to make them aware of the proposal, and he says it was surprising they weren’t included in the reopening plans.

“I’m hopeful,” he says. “We were working closely with the governor’s top staff on this, and there seemed to be a level of understanding. I don’t know why they backtracked, but hopefully we’ll get it corrected quickly.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Gianaris joined a press conference at New York Comedy Club to discuss the issue alongside venue owners and comics. Organizer and QED Astoria owner Kambri Crews opened by saying, “We’re maybe about 50 people — perfectly legal. But if I were to start telling jokes, charge you $5, require you all to be masked, seat you and space you safely six feet apart, and collect your contact info for tracing, that is illegal. It makes zero sense.”

Other owners, including Marko Elgart of Eastville Comedy Club and New York’s Scott Lindner, spoke of how their capacity would still be under 40 people and that it will be almost impossible to repay the PPP loans they were given. James Dolce, of Governor’s Comedy Club on Long Island, mentioned that after more than 12 weeks of hosting shows with all the proper precautions and safety moderations, not a single case came out of the venue. “We proved it,” he said. “It was done, and it can be done in all the comedy clubs.”

Finally, comedian Christian Finnegan discussed how vital the comedy scene is for the city and tourists and pointed out that, like cockroaches, stand-ups can’t be stomped out. “If the idea was to ban stand-up comedy, the guidelines set forth by Governor Cuomo have been completely unsuccessful,” he said. “There are comedy shows going on tonight in private homes, in backyards, in parking lots. The only thing Governor Cuomo’s guidelines do is prevent them from being done safely by licensed venues who know what they’re doing.”