Rules are made to be baroque
When I was teaching in high school, I wasn’t a fan of the myriad rules we created for students. My preference was to have one easy to remember rule: behave. Unfortunately, while many students do fine with such a broad decree, others exploit its vagueness. So, schools create specified rules, and, as students find loopholes, amendments are added, making the regulations progressively more unwieldy.
For instance, you might say, "Be in the classroom each period before the passing bell rings." But some students still arrive late, claiming they were held up by the previous teacher. So, you add language: be in the classroom each period before the passing bell rings or have a pass from a teacher. Then, someone says they were at the nurse, and you amend the rule again, until you end up with a fat handbook of copious guidelines, the baroque version of "behave."
The problem with such elaborate rules is that cooperative students are unduly inconvenienced along with those for whom these rules are crafted.
The New York coronavirus handbook
"Stay safe" is the pandemic version of "behave." Unfortunately, many of us never outgrow the desire to circumvent authority. This is especially true amidst the polarizing political atmosphere of 2020. When Governor Cuomo introduced the equivalent of a high school student handbook for Phase 4 of reopening business in New York, some bars attempted to do an end run around the rule that drinks must only be served with food, by offering pretzels and other snacks. Closing that loophole took more language.
Later, a new concern arose: that some businesses were circumventing guidelines to limit crowds, by staging live music concerts in bars—with food. So, at some point between June 30, when Western New York entered Phase 4, and August 20, the SLA modified its guidelines again, prohibiting all forms of live entertainment except that which is "incidental to the dining experience, not the draw itself." In short, while trying to prevent some venues from staging unruly concerts, they added language that discriminates against businesses that comply with the social distancing and sanitary guidelines, but feature live music.
A recent lawsuit against the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA), challenges these added rules pertaining to live music performances. The petitioner is the Sportsmens Tavern in Buffalo, which tried to resume live performances while complying with Department of Health rules. According to the lawsuit, which LSS has reviewed, Sportsmens Tavern has "remained in compliance with the re-opening guidelines, including having tables separated by six feet; requiring employees and patrons to comply with masking requirements; cleaning and sanitizing tables, chairs, restrooms, stages, microphones, and other high-traffic areas; and requiring performers to maintain twelve feet of separation from patrons." They also provide a separate entrance and dressing room for performers, taking each musician’s temperature, and ensuring that they maintain a distance of at least twelve feet from patrons while performing—all in compliance with state mandates.
The SLA prevents venues from listing, promoting, or advertising music presentations, and they must have a printed menu with in-house food items approved by the SLA. Patrons are required to buy food to order a drink, and the SLA can inspect the cash register to see that food and drinks were ordered simultaneously. Once you order food, patrons can drink all they want. The key phrase in the lawsuit is that music must be "incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself," arbitrarily prioritizing paninis over pianos.
This has had a negative impact on several local venues, including Sportsmens, Mohawk Place, the Cave, Revolution Gallery, the Traf Music Hall, Hotel Henry, and PAUSA Art House, which recently posted a request for donations "to temporarily compensate our performing musicians…as well as to help with operational expenses we may incur on low attendance." PAUSA is a good example of the problem the language causes. It’s a quiet wine bar with quality food that presents sophisticated low-key live music. They have put many procedures into place to comply with New York mandates, but the added SLA language makes it tough on their business and the musicians alike.
Hotel Henry also had to suspend its popular outdoor Summer Jazz Series, after state inspectors determined that despite being associated with a dining experience at the 100 Acres Kitchens, the music was the "draw itself." All social distancing guidelines followed by restaurants were in place, and patrons were spread out on the lawn as much or more than at parks or beaches.
Recently, one local Facebook user wryly posted that he "went out for a delicious hot dog dinner [at Sportsmens Tavern]," adding "The musicians were incidental to the dining experience." Tickets that had been sold before the new SLA language, were refunded as people entered. So, there was technically no charge for the band, but a large tip jar reportedly received all the refunded money. Social distancing, masks, vastly reduced capacity, and protocols approved by both county and state were followed.
Other local businesses are finding creative workarounds to state mandates. Revolution Gallery is a visual art space, which survives in Buffalo’s challenging art market by staging a variety of music-based events. This past Friday, they posted an announcement for an Incidental Cocktail Hour (nod, nod, wink, wink). "Stop by after work for a bite to eat from the Revolution Cafe and enjoy a cold cocktail from the bar and listen to some deep cut soul and Motown tunes!!!," the tongue-in-cheek announcement read. "Tonight on the menu we are featuring the new Dr. Wisz pizza!" Craig LaRotonda, who owns Revolution with his wife Maria Pabico LaRotonda, stressed that they follow state guidelines "to a T," but due to SLA rules, he can’t advertise the name of his in-house DJ.
Other venues are blatantly defying the rules, and, yes, violating social distancing guidelines. "I'm very surprised to see so many music club owners still promoting shows right now," says LaRotonda. "They are at serious risk!"
There are people out there who believe all businesses should be fully opened immediately. That’s a bad idea, given what has occurred in cities that opened too quickly. But there are at least three lawsuits challenging some of the state’s specific restrictions. It’s a balancing act between keeping the public safe and being fair and equitable in the opening process. Unfortunately, language added to address business owners who behave like high school students has unduly handicapped responsible venues.
In Saturday’s Buffalo News, music critic Jeff Miers wrote about the Sportsmens Tavern lawsuit with an insightful look at this issue from the perspective of musicians.
This surreal world
Hot time in West Seneca
You’ve seen it in countless movies. A tractor-trailer careens out of control on an elevated highway, crashing through the guardrails and bursting into flames, sending billowing smoke into the sky. Somehow, defying all odds, the driver is ejected to safety at the last moment, but the blazing truck hangs precariously over the highway, endangering those below.
It’s a Hollywood cliché that never really happens, right? Wrong. It happened last Wednesday in West Seneca on the 190 West. The difference between this and many movies, is that there was no superhero who came to lift the truck and protect the cars below, which just continued passing under the inferno.
"BULLSHIT WEST SENECA NY!!!"
That was the title of an August 14 social media post, reacting to an incident at a Planned Parenthood clinic on Center Road in West Seneca. The center called police for assistance when a man, believing his partner in the clinic, began kicking the door after he was told by Planned Parenthood to leave multiple times.
A West Seneca Police Officer responded to the call but seeing a Black Lives Matter sign in the clinic’s window, he asked whether it belonged to the organization. When an employee confirmed that it did, the officer berated the staff and left, refusing to respond to the call.
The officer was suspended, and later resigned before an internal investigation was completed. In a statement, police say the partly completed investigation did reveal the officer’s response was well outside the scope of training and expectations of conduct of the department’s officers. Let’s hope so!
Throughout the summer, someone has been splashing paint around the streets of the Elmwood Village, at one point damaging Café Aroma. Last week the vandal struck in Delaware Park, vandalizing the statue of Abraham Lincoln with the same blue-green paint. The buzz on social media is that residents have identified a suspect. "Is he mentally ill, as some have maintained," asks one Facebook user? "If so, get him help. If he is not mentally ill, arrest him and make him pay for the damage he has done."
Another asks, "What can we do? Social worker?" One commentator says she called the police twice. "They questioned him on Saturday morning and let him go," she says. "Cops can't do much because when they see him, he is just painting his van with rags and an open gallon of paint," says another. "Soooo Frustrating!"
Oops, our mistake
Imagine this. You buy a lottery ticket, and it’s a winner. When you go to cash it in, you’re accused of stealing the ticket. Now imagine police are called to the scene and you’re informed that you’re being arrested. Finally, imagine you are black, and this takes place in Tonawanda, and you’ve seen what often goes down when black men are arrested.
That’s what happened to Eric Martin, and his immediate response when told he would have to come to the police station, was to ask if he should meet them there. No, he was told, you are under arrest. Things went sideways from there, and it escalated into a charge of resisting arrest. It’s true that after waiting patiently while police and the Speedway store manager sorted things out, Martin did not want to be taken away in a police car in front of his kids. WIVB News shared the police camera record of the whole thing.
Later, police got a call from Speedway: oops, their mistake; the ticket wasn’t stolen after all. The police issued a press release saying that they immediately moved to dismiss the charges. Well, let’s hope so! Assistant Police Chief Nicholas Bado said the two officers could face disciplinary action for violating a coronavirus-related directive advising officers not to take people into custody for alleged low-level crimes like this one. Discipline could range anywhere from a letter in the officers’ files to termination. We’re betting on the letter at most.
Martin’s supporters gathered at the store to protest what they believe is a case of racial profiling. Charley Fisher III, a long-time civil rights advocate and president of B.U.I.L.D. of Buffalo Incorporated says they are demanding that the Speedway manager be fired.
The question: would things have gone differently if Martin was white? Discuss.
A spitting image
As long as you are already imagining, try this one on: back in March, Melissa Daniels-Johnson drove into a post office parking lot at the Cheektowaga Branch Post Office via the exit driveway. A U.S. Postal Service letter carrier alerted her to her mistake.
Daniels-Johnson shouted profanities at the letter carrier, threatening to cough on him to infect him with COVID-19. That’s right: in 2020, coughing is a lethal threat. The branch manager came out and attempted to calm Daniels-Johnson down, but on her way out, she stopped her car and told the letter carrier her husband was going to beat him up. Then she spit on his leg.
According to the Buffalo News, last week Daniels-Johnson pled guilty to assault. The charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Sentencing is scheduled for November 30.
Chronicling the times
This from the Buffalo Chronicle: your best local source for fake breaking news. The Western New York-based website, known for publishing absurd stories with no basis in fact, states that following tawdry rumors over a sexual misconduct allegation against a popular career police officer, Brett Rider (for which there is a basis in truth), several Town of Tonawanda residents are pushing the Town Board to change its policies to allow officers to receive "sexual gratuities" while on duty.
They say that, under the proposed policy, police could not ask for such a gratuity, but if offered, there would be no punishment, if it lasts under fifteen minutes (imagine the pressure). After reporting some actual facts about Rider’s case, the article again takes flight, claiming that a spokesperson for a local woman’s group is lobbying for the new policy. "People should feel comfortable expressing how much they appreciate the police and the work that they do," the fictional Karen (!) is reported saying. The article then claims that while the Town Board is being tight-lipped, the Buffalo Chronicle has the inside scoop on the charges against Rider. They might, but how could anyone be sure?
For a couple paragraphs, the story remains grounded in fact, then it’s off again with claims that The Coalition of Suburban Women Voters has advocated for a similar gratuity policy that would apply to the New York State Troopers.
More factual information follows, then this: "It’s unclear whether the Town of Tonawanda’s Paramedics Unit will be included in a new policy that is being advocated for the police department, in which officers would be allowed to receive ‘physical gratuities’ during one of their two daily fifteen-minute breaks."
Media Bias Fact Check has this to say about the Buffalo Chronicle: "A questionable source exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, consistent promotion of propaganda/conspiracies, poor or no sourcing to credible information, a complete lack of transparency and/or is fake news. Fake News is the deliberate attempt to publish hoaxes and/or disinformation for the purpose of profit or influence. Overall, we rate the Buffalo Chronicle Questionable based on far-right-wing bias, a complete lack of transparency, promotion of propaganda/conspiracy theories, and several failed fact checks."
The disturbing thing is that the stories published by the Buffalo Chronicle have been shared countless times by credulous readers, making you wonder if there is any hope for America.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
Get Long Story Short delivered directly to your mailbox as an enewsletter. Sign up today.