Governor Andrew Cuomo’s COVID cops did a sweep along Cypress Hill’s popular restaurant row last week leveling out thousands of dollars in fines and yanking liquor licenses, leaving locals to wonder if the Spanish restaurants weren’t being targeted in a thriving lower-income commercial strip off the beaten path.
Cuomo’s multi-agency task force, led by the State Police and State Liquor Authority (SLA), raided Rico Pollo, 3352 Fulton Street, El Ambiente Restaurant Patio and Lounge, 2896 Fulton Street and Faro Sports Bar & Lounge, 3247 Fulton Street last Thursday night.
No one involved denied the severity of the coronavirus to public health, but Rico Pollo I and II Owner Juan Pumtiel and Brooklyn North Council of Public Safety & Community President John C. Rodriguez, pointed out that the task force’s “bullying” tactics were inefficient in evaluating the restaurants in a primarily Spanish-speaking, Latinx neighborhood.
“This is a man that gives back to the community. He’s not a person that’s silent and takes his money and runs to the bank,” said Rodriguez about what he alleged was unfair discrimination against Pumtiel and other business owners, “He’s been giving for the last 12 years. He gives us food for our [precinct] council meetings, National Night Out.”
Pumtiel is a nonnative English speaker who has lived in the U.S for over 30 years and runs two successful restaurants even with the monumental impact of COVID-19 that shut them down for eight weeks.
His once massive staff of 70 has been scaled back to about 35, but still has maintained steady business with deliveries, takeout and now an outdoor dining area in front of the restaurant.
While liquor is not a significant proponent of his business, said Pumtiel, his lawyer has advised him that it will be costly to get back. It’s an extra expense that he and others in the community struggling to survive can’t afford.
Rodriguez, who acted as Pumtiel’s translator, said that the sweep conducted of the restaurants had not one Spanish-speaking person to facilitate the governor’s orders. There were also no preventative measures taken to reach out to the community businesses and inform them of swiftly changing regulations, said Rodriguez.
Pumtiel also seemed stressed that the posted “order of summary suspension of license” information required to hang on the front doors and explain violations was in legalese English and therefore hard to understand.
Pumtiel said two instances noted as violations could’ve been explained if the investigators could communicate properly with the manager and staff. Images taken off security footage support his claims.
About 10 caucasian men, officials in similar dress, came into the restaurant, described Pumtiel, who’s more comfortable speaking in his native language. They rushed to the kitchen and they were focused with not a lot of communication, he said.
The investigators’ task force said they then observed two patrons inside the premises eating and drinking that night.
The server dressed in all black and the identifiable delivery person wearing a highlighter blazer in the security photo are employees of Rico Pollo, and often take dinner breaks in pairs or threes, said Pumtiel.
The investigators said that the kitchen was also observed to be a health hazard to which Pumtiel maintains was a cultural misunderstanding.
The restaurant dish el con con is a traditional Spanish favorite described as a flavorful, crispy bottom of rice bits that they sell at Rico Pollo. The process involves making a large pot of thick rice, oil, water, and seasonings that adhere to the bottom of a pot, said Rodriguez. After the rice is removed, the pot needs to be deeply soaked and strained for proper disposal, said Rodriguez, and is kept on the floor out of the way.
“They gave them a summons because they said, ‘Oh they’re putting food on the floor,’” said Rodriguez about the culturally insensitive investigators, “The workers tried to explain.”
Pumtiel admittedly said that he argues often with customers ordering takeout that come in without masks or line up inside, but he had all staff tested, even his sister who works with him. After three positive cases were discovered during the lockdown, when people were away from the business, all staff were tested again, he said.
The raids also came in a neighborhood that has had no city Council representation since former City Councilmember Rafael Espinal stepped down in January to take another job.
City council hopeful and Female Democratic Assembly District 54 Leader Darma V. Diaz said that the neighborhood is especially vulnerable right now not only for the lack of representation but because small business owners on the thriving commercial strip face displacement due to the de Blasio Administration’s upzoning which allows developers to build higher along the strip.
“It’s a sampling of what’s to come,” said Diaz, who is currently working with the Local Development Corporation (LDC) on a project to drop off educational materials and protective gear for businesses in the area.
“I see next steps is to hold a virtual meeting with two local nonprofits from Cypress Hills to work with merchants as well as invite the commissioner of SBA [Small Business Association] to a session,” said Diaz on what she plans to do. She also said she’s reaching out to business alliances and neighboring councilmembers for support in her unofficial district.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s office denied it was targeting Cypress Hill restaurants, although a KCP review of other COVID-related restaurant raids show no particular sweeps in other Brooklyn neighborhood restaurant rows such as Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens’ Smith Street or Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue.
“This is about protecting public health — and from Madison Avenue to Montauk, we will go after bad actors wherever they put New Yorkers in danger,” said the governor’s office.
“To date, state investigators have conducted nearly 30,000 compliance checks on Long Island and in every neighborhood throughout New York City, and the only things guiding their work are a mandate to protect the public and the actions of bar owners. We are laser-focused on taking action against the small number of bad actors who willfully violate coronavirus-related regulations, placing their employees, their patrons, the public, and our continued re-opening at risk.”