PITTSFIELD — Methuselah Bar & Lounge has received a third citation for allegedly violating COVID-19 safety regulations, and a city health official is seeking to have its license suspended.
Andy Cambi, the city’s senior sanitarian told the Licensing Board on Thursday that owner Yuki Cohen has not cooperated fully with inquiries about the incidents surrounding the citations.
“I want to make a strong recommendation that the board ... understand that we’re not moving forward and that we need to suspend this license,” Cambi said.
Cohen, a city councilor, maintains that she’s defending herself against “frivolous” complaints, which she said were initiated by a colleague on the council.
Methuselah already has been cited for violations on Aug. 22 and Dec. 11, both of which Cohen is challenging. She was issued two $500 fines for the Dec. 11 violations, which she said she has not paid pending an appeal with the city’s hearing officer.
The latest citation stems from an anonymous complaint, which included photos, submitted to the Health Department on Dec. 18, alleging that customers were seen ordering and paying at the bar. Cohen was cited for “failing to enforce customers to be seated at all times.”
Cambi told members he’s exhausted all avenues at his disposal to address his safety concerns, and implored the Licensing Board to suspend Cohen’s liquor license for some period of time.
Cohen represented herself at Thursday’s show cause hearing via Zoom, during which members questioned her and Cambi about the events of Dec. 11 and Aug. 22. The board held off on making any findings or issuing any sanctions since Cohen is scheduled to reappear before the board Jan. 25 to address the most recent citation, which was issued Tuesday.
Cohen submitted narratives from herself and customers who were there Dec. 18, as evidence Cohen did ask customers to wear a mask or sit down.
Cohen said she was trying to enforce the rules, and regarding each violation notice, said Cambi made a subjective decision based on flimsy evidence.
“He comes to conclusions based on the pictures, and it’s always a finding of guilt,” Cohen told The Eagle.
But Cambi said Cohen failed to supply him with requested information, including narratives explaining her side of the story for the first two complaints stemming from Aug. 22 and Dec. 11, leaving him to make decisions with the information he has at hand.
He said efforts to work with Cohen have proved unsuccessful, and the back-and-forth is eating up city resources.
“It’s frustrating from my end because I’m not getting cooperation from her, and then I have to make my determination with no response,” he told The Eagle. “It’s taking a lot of our resources, and it’s not being proactive; we’re not getting compliance.”
The board delved into the events of Dec. 11, when Cohen was cited for not wearing a mask and for having customers “sitting at the bar area without proper distancing.”
Cohen said Dina Guiel Lampiasi, also a city councilor and a member of the Licensing Board, and her wife visited Methuselah for dinner that evening.
Guiel Lampiasi, who recused herself from the hearing, said in a written narrative that they arrived at Methuselah around 8:20 p.m., “sat parallel to the bar at a high top [table]; facing each other” and ordered food and drinks.
By about 9:15 p.m., the other patrons had left, and Cohen turned the “open” sign off then cleared a table while the couple finished their meals. In her statement, Guiel Lampiasi said “when Ms. Cohen returned to her workstation behind the bar, she pulled her mask down to take a sip of her beverage, later returning the mask to its proper position.”
Cambi said Cohen was still at work, and should have followed the state’s masking rules.
“If someone needs to take a mask break it should be designated away from customers,” he said.
And he noted Cohen had not installed Plexiglass barriers between the bar and high-top tables pushed up against it — a requirement when there’s less than 6 feet of distance between a table and an employee work area, according to Cambi.
Cohen said such barriers have proved cost prohibitive, as has retrieving customer receipts that Cambi has requested.
“That is bothersome to me, Yuki, that [Cambi’s] asked for the documentation, and you haven’t given it to them,” said board member Kathy Amuso. “The burden is on you for a lot of this.”
Cohen said she was issued the fine Dec. 14, just hours after Cambi notified her that someone snapped a photo of her with her mask down from outside the establishment. Cambi said he sent her the picture and asked for supporting evidence by 2 p.m. the same day.
Instead of Cohen supplying the requested evidence, Cambi said, she asked who lodged the complaint. So he issued the fine.
“I’m not trying to be uncooperative,” Cohen said. “I’m just trying to defend myself against what I feel are frivolous violations, and they all come through Councilor [Anthony] Maffuccio.”
Maffuccio, who also participated in the hearing, told the Licensing Board that he forwards all coronavirus complaints he receives to the city.
Earlier this week, he unsuccessfully tried to have the City Council vote on a petition asking Cohen to resign from the council.
Amuso said she was concerned by some of the things she heard at the hearing, and speculated that past compliance issues have spawned efforts by some to keep a close eye on Methuselah.
Richard Stockwell, vice chairman of the Licensing Board, questioned why someone would capture the photo from outside Methuselah on Dec. 11.
“This is just my opinion; it appears to me that it’s not because of any COVID violations, though Yuki did have her mask down,” he said. “It seems to me that it was more an embarrassment of two city councilors than it was a COVID violation.”