For Peter González, the return this week of regulars to the bar at Johnny’s, the Greenwich Village watering hole he owns, was a promising step for a neighborhood joint that has hung on for the past 30 years – thanks to gentrification, 9/11, the crisis, the fitness boom and many other things. Yet it was also confusing.
“It’s really awkward to have people sitting at the bar right in front of you because we’ve gotten so used to the distance,” González said.
The easing of restrictions on bars this week is another sign that New York CityThe once-choppy reopening of the Covid shutdown has collapsed in a headlong gallop.
As infections continue to decline, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently declared July 1 as the target date for the city to fully reopen. Not to be outdone by his bitter political rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo ad this week, he wanted most stores, restaurants, museums and the like to run near full capacity by May 19, calling it “a milestone for New York state and a moment of significant transition.”
Although Broadway is still closed, tickets went on sale this week for shows set to resume in September.
In the meantime, there are other signs of life resuming, although it may not necessarily return to normal pre-Covid. One executive noted, for example, that his spin cycle class had become crowded again. Like her, she speculated, people might not be in Manhattan five days a week, but they are increasingly there sometimes. The Lincoln tunnel – as clear as the arteries of a nun just a few months ago – is again blocked.
On Wednesday afternoon, Le Bilboquet, the Upper East Side bistro, was also packed inside – as was its new row of outdoor seating. The crowd of glamorous customers who were waiting at the door, and in the rain, seemed refute the claim that anyone who could afford it had left New York for Palm Beach in Florida or the Hamptons on Long Island.
“It’s quiet,” the maitre d ‘joked with Gallic understatement as the crowd buzzed around him.
Yet such scenes are still patchy. A few blocks away in Midtown, where many office buildings are still largely empty, so were the bars. A doorman at the Park Hyatt hotel, for example, on so-called Billionaires’ Row, said he would not reopen his lounge until July. Italian restaurant Marea was turning people away from its amber-hued bar overlooking Central Park and asking them to come back on Friday.
On Monday, the night the bar restrictions were lifted, the scene was muted at the Corner Bistro, a cozy West Village fixture. There were only three customers sitting in a corner of the bar, next to a not-so-attractive sheet of plexiglass.
“Until you get business travelers and tourists back, everything is a common area,” said the bartender, who is now skilled not only at mixing drinks, but also checking customers’ vaccination cards. . He looks forward to the day when the neighboring High Line elevated park will again be crowded with foreign tourists – some of whom might pass for a burger and a beer.
Johnny’s, on the other hand, has always looked after the premises. It’s a very efficient beverage establishment – a slender cubbyhole with little more than a bar so narrow that patrons can practically reach for the bottles, a blackboard to record drinks left with friends, a payphone, little toilet with strands of Christmas lights and, of course, a jukebox.
During a recent evening, the tunes ran through the range of Wu-Tang Clan, The Police and Jamiroquai to Weezer’s interpretation of a ballad by the Muppets, then to the ultra-new “Scènes d’un restaurant Italien” -Yorkaises by Billy Joel. A few men sitting at one end of the bar wondered who the greatest songwriter of all time was. Two women were huddling and sipping whiskey. Another complained of her high blood pressure. A Puerto Rican gentleman was dressed as a cowboy and looked like he had wandered the dusty plains.
“New York bars are family,” said González, who came to the village years ago from Corpus Christi, Texas, and came into contact with a group of ballerinas. He stuck around. “A lot of people in New York don’t have families.” It was either Johnny – “or go see a shrink”.
Like other bars and restaurants, Johnny’s has adapted to an ever-changing set of circumstances since the city was closed in March of last year. After he started serving take-out drinks, passers-by were so grateful for his survival that they slipped money out the entrance window, one of the bartenders said. “People feel safe here,” she added.
He pitched a tent on the sidewalk and was also coerced into serving hot dogs – ‘Blasio’s dogs’ as many now call them – to satisfy a Covid-era requirement that any establishment serving as the alcohol should serve food with it. In a hopeful sign, González removed the hot dog machine from its place atop the empty bar on Sunday and brought it home. It was no longer necessary now that the food rule was removed.
However, things are not normal. Those who are now seated at the bar have to sign a logbook and the whole show ends at 11pm – not the usual 3am or 4am.
“Some people say it will take another year for things to really come back,” said Oscar, 29, a drummer, who ran his martini company with a beer at a recent party. He longed for the reopening of neighboring jazz clubs. In the meantime, he had spent much of the past year alone, he said, and – like other New Yorkers – “self-healing.”
Now he has Johnny.