PITTSFIELD — Methuselah Bar & Lounge was hit with a two-day license suspension Monday, after the Licensing Board weighed several complaints about COVID-19 safety at Councilor Yuki Cohen’s North Street establishment over the past several months.
With member Dina Guiel Lampiasi abstaining, the other Licensing Board members — Thomas Campoli, Richard Stockwell, Kathleen Amuso and Dennis Powell — voted unanimously in favor of suspending the liquor license Feb. 2 and 3.
The vote came after members finished a “show cause” hearing with Cohen, the at-large councilor, her attorney and the city’s senior sanitarian, Andy Cambi.
Much of Monday’s hearing, a continuation of the “show cause” hearing that began Jan. 15, was spent discussing the evening of Oct. 30, which was the subject of the third COVID-19 safety citation the city has issued to Cohen.
Cambi said he received an email Dec. 18 from “Jane Doe,” a person who claimed that they were at Methuselah the night of Oct. 30 and saw coronavirus safety rules being broken. The sender included several pictures.
Based on the anonymous complaint and photos, as well as a narrative Cohen prepared and accounts she obtained from her customers for Cambi’s investigation, Cambi cited Methuselah for serving customers at the bar with less than 6 feet of distance to an employee workspace without a physical barrier, failure to enforce the mask rule, failing to keep tables at least 6 feet away from a high-traffic area and failing to provide prepared food with each order.
One photo shows a maskless man standing near a doorway that patrons must pass through before getting to a room that leads to the restrooms, Cambi said.
“It’s very concerning, because any customer who wants to go to the bathroom has to encounter this person who’s not wearing a mask,” he said. “I feel that this night, there was no control of the establishment.”
Cohen’s attorney, Judith Knight, asked the board to determine that no violations occurred. After Cambi again said physical barriers are a requirement to separate customers from employee workstations behind the bar, Knight countered that that would only apply had the customers been sitting at the bar eating.
Rather, the customers had been coming to the bar area to pay or order, according to an employee narrative.
“I agree with you that no one can sit at the bar and eat under these circumstances,” Knight said.
“So, why are there tables there?” Cambi asked, referring to high-top tables that were pushed up flush against the bar. “Why are there other pictures from Oct. 24 and Dec. 12 of people eating there?”
Cohen maintained that her setup complies with the state’s COVID-19 industry safety rules, saying Cambi previously had not raised issues about it, and that at least 6 feet separates employee workstations from the high-top tables pushed up against the bar, precluding the need for a physical barrier.
Knight said there is no evidence to support the allegation that drinks were being served without food. Cambi said that Cohen has not provided point-of-sale slips proving as much, though Knight said the city requested the receipts over two months after the night in question, and at that point Cohen did not have them.
This whole time, Cohen has been trying to enforce the coronavirus safety rules with customers, said Knight, which means reminding patrons of it.
Some Licensing Board members expressed unease with how pictures taken by people and forwarded to city officials anonymously instigated Cambi’s investigations.
“The pictures that people are sending us are causing angst for all of us,” said Amuso, because they leave room for interpretation. She said that, moving forward, the board would like to see clear pictures documenting apparent violations and would like to know who took them, because it’s tough to figure out what went on without being able to question the complainant.
Powell and Stockwell took issue with how complaints could be made anonymously that affect the livelihoods of business owners.
Powell said he did not know who was “trying to dig up this so-called evidence” of another photo that apparently was snapped from outside Methuselah the night of Dec. 11, which, he said, lacked substance and content.
“That’s like a private eye in the night trying to go after somebody dangerous, and this was not the case in either of these,” Powell said.
Guiel Lampiasi and her wife were at Methuselah on Dec. 11 when someone snapped the “blurry picture” of Cohen with her mask around her chin, said Campoli, the board's chairperson. He said to take the position that Guiel Lampiasi should not be on the Licensing Board would be “outrageous.”
“I think it’s a technical violation,” Campoli said of the mask snapshot captured Dec. 11, “but to suggest, as Councilor [Anthony] Maffuccio has, that Ms. Lampiasi did anything wrong, is patently false.”
Maffuccio, who was logged on to the meeting, had filed a council petition requesting the board review coronavirus complaints issued to Methuselah. He said he does not solicit the photos, but as was the case when Proprietor’s Lodge lost its license for five days, he must forward them to the proper place.
“I’m not out to see any business go down, but when I have pictures sent to me, I have to send them to the appropriate places,” he said.
Stockwell noted that Methuselah has been before the board in the past for other pre-coronavirus license issues, some serious, and said he supports a suspension. Campoli agreed to taking into account Cohen’s history with the Licensing Board when deciding on a sanction.
Stockwell added that he is not happy with how the board received the information, and that there are questions that can’t be answered because of the anonymity of the photo-takers. That has raised questions in Stockwell’s mind.
“I just think there’s a lot more underground that’s going on here, that has a lot to do not with the COVID violations, but as you said, Mr. Chairman, in the last meeting, it’s politics. And politics does not belong in front of the Licensing Board,” Stockwell said.