PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Lounge owner Yuki Cohen was again cited for COVID-19 violations after video footage of her dancing maskless atop her bar — along with other violations — surfaced.
The Licensing Board on Thursday unanimously voted to suspend Methuselah Bar and Lounge's liquor license for 28 days and entertainment license for another 25 days as a result of violations from the evening of Thursday, April 15, into Friday, April 16, that were captured in three videos.
The liquor license suspension will occur between Saturday, May 1, and Friday, May 28, and the entertainment license will be suspended from May 1 to June 25. Board member Kathy Amuso motioned to revoke Cohen's liquor license but it was not seconded.
"I have been having such a challenge dealing with this owner," Senior Sanitarian Andy Cambi said. "At this point, it wasn't a mistake, it wasn't a lapse of judgment, clearly it's disregard for the safety standards that have been set by Governor Baker and his administration, that's how I feel personally.
"I feel that this board should revoke the license at this point because this has not gotten any better continues to get worse."
Methuselah was found for failure to provide food with alcoholic beverages, failure to enforce customers wearing face coverings while not dining and drinking, failure to enforce employees wearing face coverings, failing to enforce customers to be seated at all times, and failure to maintain social distancing.
"Time after time after time, you're not keeping our community safe," Amuso said to Cohen, a Pittsfield councilor at large.
The videos, which were originally posted on the social media platform Snapchat around 1 a.m. on April16, depicted Cohen dancing atop the bar unmasked with other patrons, no sign of food being ordered with alcoholic drinks, patrons standing up unmasked, and a general "club-like" atmosphere.
The Health Department received this video footage that Friday and Saturday and served Cohen a cease-and-desist order Saturday.
Cohen said she "voluntarily" remained closed until Tuesday and took this time to reflect on her bad decisions and to make a plan that mitigate violations in the future. Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong said she was compliant with the department after being ordered to shut down and submitted an updated safety plan on April 19.
Cohen admitted to all of the violations except for the failure to provide food service — for which she provided vague documentation that the board did not find adequate — and was apologetic for her actions.
"My birthday was coming up that weekend, everybody is from the industry and we just, I started celebrating a little early and let my guard down," she said. "I am deeply apologetic to the community and to the board and the Health Department."
She identified the individual who took the videos, Alexander Peaslee, as a friend along with the other customers at the bar that night. She claimed they were all "in the industry" and were comfortable around one another.
"All service was done, checks were closed at that time," Cohen said. "We put on music because we like to close to good music and that's when the singing breaks out, so the people that were left were the industry people that I felt comfortable around. I know from the video it looks like it was going on all night. I was working my butt off all night and then this happened after we close all the checks, so ... it's not something that went on forever."
Though apologetic, she believed that no further actions should have been taken because her 10-day closure after the cease-and-desist order was punishment enough and implied that she will be contesting the suspensions.
Cohen has been in front of the Licensing Board for seven separate violations since Methuselah's opening and the liquor license issuing in 2014.
In January, Cohen's license was suspended for two days for COVID-19 violations after hearings for three complaints that included pictures and anonymous testimony. Methuselah also faced a five-day liquor license suspension in 2018.
Chairman Thomas Campoli found it upsetting that Cohen appeared to operate her establishment as a bar when other local bars have been handicapped by the pandemic.
"It's been well over a year, every bar in the city of Pittsfield has been shut down because of COVID-19, all of them have been shut down because they have complied with Governor Baker's COVID-19 orders, because of that they've had severe economic hardship, and many will probably not reopen," he said. "Pittsfield's restaurants, since over a year, were first shut down, then they were limited to takeout, then to only outdoor service, then limited in terms of indoor service and limited in terms of hours.
"These restaurants have been punished financially, and some have gone under, and the reason though, that they've gone under is that they've complied with COVID orders.
"Against this backdrop, we have a licensee on North Street in the center of Pittsfield with a history of violations, violations before COVID violations after COVID, and that establishment is operated by a Pittsfield city councilor, that means something to me that that occurred, she didn't just allow this to happen on April 15, frankly, she was involved in it, it appeared to me from the videos and in every step of the way."
Board member Richard Stockwell expressed safety concerns for Cohen and the patrons dancing on the bar, saying that it appeared they "had a few cocktails."
"I don't think you've taken your responsibilities as a manager seriously," Amuso said.
"And as board member Stockwell just said, what if somebody fell off the bar? Most of those people didn't look very sober. What if they got in their car and hurt somebody? You've got a lot of responsibility and COVID is one of them, but as a license holder, you have an immense responsibility and you have not since 2014 taken that responsibility seriously."
Cambi pointed out that based on the receipts she provided, Cohen was serving "shelf-stable" foods such as almonds and olives with alcohol instead of on-site prepared foods.
"The requirement for restaurants is that they must offer food prepared on-site, it does not shelf-stable food does not constitute that, and I see here a receipt of almonds, and then three drinks, customer [Ward 5 Councilor] Patrick Kavey with one almond and three drinks, and then I see another receipt for olives and drinks, so that's shelf-stable food, they're not food prepared on-site," he said.
In regards to a receipt that board member and Ward 6 Councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi brought to attention, which included a small cheese plate and nine drinks, Cambi said current restrictions also limit service to 90 minutes and that the number of drinks sold was of concern.
"I'm missing receipts," Amuso said. "So that's bothersome to me, I am looking at the drinks/food ratio and I think that's a problem."
Guiel Lampiasi — who was pictured in one of Cohen's previous violations — said she was disappointed by these videos but did not think it would be right to take actions to close Methuselah down for good.
"These latest events were incredibly disappointing to hear about, and going through the videos, they were cringe-worthy," she said. "And I know that Miss Cohen is embarrassed. I know she's remorseful. And I understand why."
Members of the board expressed that they had never received so many phone calls about a specific occurrence than they have with the release of these videos.
Attorney Thomas Hamel called into the meeting on behalf of a restaurant group including Mazzeo's, The Hot Dog Ranch, Cim's, Friends, The Highland, and Jae's Asian Bistro, who felt that Methuselah's actions have caused economic damage that has directly impacted other eateries in the city.
This testimony was not received well by members of the board, who felt that it seemed politically charged.
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio also called in to speak on the violations.
"This is unacceptable. And I am so disappointed that this is happening, especially during the pandemic," he said.
"So I plead with the board, with the actions that this business has portrayed and the conduct and atmosphere they have been portrayed at this restaurant in the city, we do not need bad examples of this tolerated and I ask this board to revoke the license, Councilor Cohen is an elected official and is required to set an example for this community and abide by rules and regulations, which she took an oath to."
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