The efforts of the owner and management team at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett to create a safe venue for local musicians to entertain and get paid for their artistry during the COVID-19 pandemic has been put on hold by the New York State Liquor Authority. In recent days, the SLA has put in place a series of guidelines that specifically prohibit establishments from hiring musicians for anything other than incidental background music.
“We had to cancel all the shows yesterday,” Peter Honerkamp, the owner, said by phone Thursday. The SLA action seemingly came out of the blue, he said. He and his team had transformed the iconic Talkhouse to conform with the reality of living through a pandemic, while still providing entertainment.
Honerkamp said Nancy Atlas, a local musician who heads her own band, had come up with the concept. Instead of crowding people indoors to hear live music, the exterior of one of the few businesses in the Town of East Hampton that the zoning code recognizes as a night club was transformed into a seating area.
Customers would reserve tables in advance. The tables were all socially distanced. Around the tables were screens. “We invested and put these screens up, providing really good visual and audio so that you can go out and have some fun with your friends,” he said.
While the patrons were seated outside, the band would set up inside the establishment. Customers were not allowed inside, except to use the bathroom, and then only one at time.
They started scheduling groups a couple of weeks ago. The cover charge went to the band, Honerkamp said. They had the fire marshal as well as inspectors from the SLA who approved the layout.
It all seemed to be working well, until the SLA posted the new guidelines earlier this week on a Q&A page. “It is a statewide thing. I just don’t know. It came out of nowhere. It came up on the State Liquor Authority website and every band started calling me. I called my attorney. He said, ‘Peter, you have to pull the plug.’ ”
Honerkamp had lined up a busy fall schedule that included some fairly big names. But, the plug has now been pulled on these plans.
He blames states around the country, like Florida, Texas and Arizona that did not follow New York State’s example, and forced an opening of bars and restaurants too soon, as well as an administration that seemed to be operating under the belief that the virus was going to disappear one day. “They screwed the whole country. We are going to hit 200,000 Americans dead in September,” he said.
The only live music permitted currently by the SLA is incidental music. The form of music cannot be, in and of itself, a draw to attract patrons.
“Additionally,” the guidelines read, “please note that only incidental music is permissible at this time. This means that advertised and/or ticketed shows are not permissible. Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself.”
It is not the only form of entertainment barred by the SLA. Standup comedy clubs are barred from booking acts and karaoke is banned from bars. Customers dancing is banned, as are typical games played in bars like pool and darts.
“Patrons should be standing only for necessary reasons such as use of restrooms, entering, and exiting,” the guidelines state.
When it was pointed put that the language banning ticketed performances includes the words, “at this time,” offering a ray of hope that the rules could change, Honerkamp responded with a rhetorical shrug. “Who knows?” he said.
The Talkhouse will continue serving drinks and food, but the live music that has been the heartbeat of the place for so many years will not return, at least in the foreseeable future.
The only true hope, he believes, for a return to normalcy, is the development and distribution across the nation of a safe and effective vaccine.