Mac’s Public House was shut down after the owner and manager refused to follow virus restrictions. Supporters rallied outside the bar Wednesday night.
When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo mandated a 10 p.m. curfew at bars, Mac’s Public House, a tavern on Staten Island, stayed open after hours.
When indoor dining was banned in the area because of high coronavirus infection rates, the bar continued to serve local customers inside.
When the state suspended the pub’s liquor license, the general manager announced a way to skirt the law: by serving food and alcohol for free — still indoors — in exchange for a contribution.
Keith McAlarney, the bar owner, ignored cease-and-desist notices and rapidly accruing fines, he said. Mr. McAlarney painted an orange rectangle out front and declared the bar an “autonomous zone.” He publicly taunted Mr. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom he called “de Bozo,” to come down in person and take the license off the wall.
But this week, the city and the state struck back, making this tavern a flash point in the Covid culture wars that have turned some business owners and party hosts into rebels against pandemic restrictions.
In New York City, Staten Island has been one of the centers of rebellion, even as authorities began constructing an emergency field hospital because of a soaring coronavirus infection rate in the borough. The ZIP code in the area where the bar is located has a 8.62 test positivity rate, the fourth highest among New York City ZIP codes in the last seven days.
Staten Island diverges from the city’s four other boroughs in its Republican political leanings and its support for President Trump, and indeed in the desire of some of its residents over the years to secede from the city.
On Tuesday, deputies from the city’s sheriff’s office arrested Danny Presti, the bar manager, for obstructing governmental administration. They led him away in handcuffs as protesters and loyal customers heckled them.
State Senator Andrew Lanza, a Republican who represents the area, showed up Tuesday night to support the bar and told The New York Post that he was surrounded and physically restrained by deputies when he tried to force his way in to assist Mr. Presti. Mr. Lanza did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, protesters gathered outside the bar, many holding American flags and shouting chants against Mr. Cuomo.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. McAlarney said he felt he had to take a stand against a whiplash of restrictions that is hurting businesses like his. “I was trying to get their attention so that they would work with the industry instead of being lazy with their decisions and just closing things down,” he said from inside his bar as a phalanx of deputy sheriffs outside kept customers from entering.
Because patrons crowd together and talk loudly, health experts have said that bars have often been major spreaders of the virus, which has killed more than 24,000 people in New York City.
Still, Mr. McAlarney said he was not persuaded that restrictions on bars were effective in stopping the spread of the virus and questioned the government’s role in regulating gatherings. “If you feel that it’s not safe to go out, then choose to stay home,” he said.
Although many bar owners have bridled at the pandemic restrictions inhibiting their businesses, most have abided by them, often by accommodating drinkers legally outside, on sidewalks, parking lots and street spaces — and serving them food, at the state’s insistence.
But Mr. McAlarney, who said he sunk his life savings to open the bar a year ago, said he felt compelled to resist the city’s “bully tactics.”
The free drinks strategy was announced by Mr. Presti on a YouTube video in which he explained from behind the bar that those customer donations would help pay the bar’s bills.
“It was never mandatory, only requested,” Mr. McAlarney said.
State officials said that even free service of alcohol without a state license is illegal.
The governor’s office criticized Mr. McAlarney for putting politics over pandemic safety.
“This owner is learning that actions have consequences,” said Jack Sterne, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo. “Breaking the law and putting your neighbors’ lives at risk during a global pandemic to make a political statement is simply unacceptable.”
Regarding the bar declaring itself an autonomous zone, Mitch Schwartz, a mayoral spokesman, said, “COVID-19 doesn’t respect autonomous zones, and neither does the sheriff — there are consequences for endangering your neighbors in a pandemic.”
Mr. Presti’s arrest came shortly after several plainclothes deputies sat down inside Mac’s and ordered food and alcohol in exchange for a mandatory “donation” of $40. They observed other patrons were doing the same, said the city’s sheriff, Joseph Fucito.
Deputies then issued appearance tickets for multiple violations of city and state laws and ordered Mr. Presti to leave. When he refused, he was arrested, said Mark J. Fonte, a lawyer for the bar’s owners.
Mr. Fonte claimed that the city was making an example of the bar for its vocal resistance to “onerous restrictions that would put them out of business.”
He said that Mac’s was already struggling this fall because restrictions only allowed the owners to seat customers at 25 percent normal capacity. Those limits apply to all indoor dining and drinking in New York City.
When the area was designated an orange zone because of its surge in virus cases, with indoor service banned, “it just crushed them, so they’re doing anything possible to try to survive,” Mr. Fonte said.