• January 28, 2023

The Pub the Pandemic Couldn’t Kill

Yonkers, NY

Irish luck almost came to an end last year when John Lyons told it. The County Roscommon born owner of McKeons Bar & Restaurant has faced many difficulties in his 43 years in the tavern business, starting out as a busboy. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.” Nothing – not the crime of the 1970s and 1980s, power outages, September 11, the house collapse, or super storm Sandy – would have made New York’s nightlife economy as low as the coronavirus lockdowns.

The nightmare began on March 16, 2020 when state and local authorities ordered the closure of all pubs, clubs, cafes, buffets, bistros, boîtes, bars, taverns and shebeen in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The takeaway and delivery permission wasn’t of much help to joints like McKeon’s, where the ambiance is the main attraction – the familiar face behind the bar, the casual conversation, the banter, the laughter -. It’s madness, as the boys say.

Many companies will never open again. At least 1,000 New York restaurants have permanently closed since the lockdowns began, according to Eater.com. Coogan’s Pub in Washington Heights went down in April. The whistle rang for Foley’s near Madison Square Garden in May. Jameson’s on Second Avenue turned off the beer light in July; Murphy’s next door did the same thing in August. The Mean Fiddler in Times Square made it through October before throwing in the towel.

“Whatever it is, they are trying to do something to the city, however they try to kill it in between [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo and [Mayor Bill] de Blasio, it works, ”says the 62-year-old Lyons. Several of his New York colleagues gave up investments of up to half a million dollars. “They went away. Over ”, he says in astonishment.

McKeon’s, north of the New York City border, was closed for two months for personal drinking and eating. It survived with the help of a Paycheck Protection Program loan that amounted to about 15% of monthly cash flow even if the bills kept rolling. “The mortgage is not going away,” says Lyons. The lender offered “a short break, but you have to pay for it at some point. So you try to pay it and don’t fall behind because when you open you will face the same bills and the business won’t be here. “The gas and electricity bills were almost the same. . . . Your insurance has to be paid for. Taxes have to be paid. ”

The lockdown was particularly unfavorable for Irish bars on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, when a surge in business typically “pays your bills for January and February,” as Mr. Lyons puts it. From a public health perspective, he admits, the authorities have made the right call; The virus would have spread like a spilled barrel of Guinness through the crowd blocking McKeons March 17-20 as the Yonkers St. Patrick’s Day parade was due to march past the front door.

Even so, Mr. Lyons says ruefully, “You kept it closed a little too long.”

Eleven Irish bars are located half a dozen yards down McLean Avenue on the border between Yonkers in Westchester County and the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, where another half a dozen green-and-white pubs are located near Katonah Avenue. orange flying Irish flag. Fifty years ago, a dozen or more parishes in the five boroughs could plausibly have been called Irish neighborhoods. Those days are over and make the Emerald Mile a time capsule, one of the last great Irish immigrant enclaves in the region. It is home to much of the workforce that occupies the hundreds of Irish pubs in the Big Apple.

The city’s restaurants, which currently have limited capacity, may be able to reopen fully in the coming weeks. If they do, places like McKeon could find it difficult to find and retain Irish staff. While a brogue remains a big draw behind the bar, Lyons says the pandemic has messed up the local job market. Many Irish born bartenders and waitresses have returned to Ireland.

“Most of the young Irish who worked out here couldn’t afford to stay,” he says. “They all went back home.” Others found work elsewhere or began training as nurses and domestic helpers. “You’re not coming back to this business,” says Lyons, naming two bars in Manhattan that wanted to reopen in February but couldn’t find a bartender.

Even before the pandemic, immigration from Ireland had fallen sharply from the highs of the late 20th century. Of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, only between 10,000 and 50,000 are Irish. But that’s not because legal immigration is easy. In 2019, the Department of Foreign Affairs only awarded 0.05% of the green cards in its annual diversity lottery to Irish applicants.

Mr. Lyons himself arrived on the beaten path to the American Dream in December 1977. He spent 21 years bartering and sagging tips to open up his own space. His first ventures went under. He now has two bars: McKeon’s, which he has owned and run for 13 years, and the River Court across the Hudson in New City’s Rockland County hamlet, which opened in 2017, “do or die,” which politicians don’t appreciate : “These people don’t know how hard you work to pay your bills. And they don’t care about the normal people. You can talk what you want. ”

Since July, Westchester restaurants like McKeon’s have been allowed to have 50% occupancy. Across the street in the Bronx, the indoor limit for a full year was zero or 25%. It expanded to 35% on Feb.26 and to 50% this week, but bars on both sides of the border are still due to close at 11 p.m., five hours earlier than normal – like the coronavirus is having a bedtime.

Postponing the last call an hour or two would be a boon to Mr. Lyons and his cash coworkers who are about to lose another Paddy’s Day pot of gold. But if the vaccinations increase and the number of cases goes in the right direction, their luck may soon change.

Mr. Hennessey is the journal’s assistant editor.

Copyright © 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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