|Pittsfield Licensing Board Continues Hearings on Methuselah|
|By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff|
12:43AM / Friday, January 15, 2021
|Methuselah owner Yuki Cohen displays a receipt to the Licensing Board during a hearing on complaints lodged about not following pandemic restrictions at her restaurant. |
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A city health official pushed for the suspension of Methuselah Bar and Lounge's license on Thursday, saying owner Yuki Cohen was being uncooperative and failed to provide requested documents.
Cohen, a city councilor at large, had been warned and fined $1,000 for noncompliance with the state's COVID-19 regulations. Cohen has denied violating the pandemic rules and appealed the fine.
"We need to suspend this license," Senior Sanitarian Andy Cambi told the Licensing Board in regard to Methuselah's liquor license. "At this point, I feel that all the authority that we have has been contested back to us and we've not been able to accomplish anything."
He stated that the two $500 fines Methuselah faced for one of the violations in question have not been paid. One day after the fines were issued, Cohen created a "Methuselah Staying Alive Fund" on crowdsourcing website Gofundme that raised $4,703.
Cohen will be given another chance to provide point-of-sale documents or surveillance camera footage to the Licensing Board on Monday, Jan. 25.
In this meeting, she faced a hearing for two of the alleged violations said to have occurred on Aug. 22 and Dec. 11. There was a third violation from Oct. 30 in question that was set to be investigated at the next meeting. The board decided to vote on all three violations at the next meeting.
The City Council on Dec. 8 had approved Ward 6 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio's petition to refer the COVID-19 complaints against Methuselah to the Licensing Board.
The alleged Aug. 22 violation was based on a picture of two patrons facing the bar when bar seating was illegal, with no sign of menus, silverware, dishware, or food. The alleged Dec. 11 violation was a picture of Ward 6 City Councilor Dina Lampiasi and her wife seated at the bar with Cohen behind the bar not wearing a mask.
Lampiasi, also a member of the Licensing Board, did not participate in the discussion but said she would answer questions.
The pictures depicting the violations were from anonymous sources and were forwarded to Maffuccio's city email address.
These claims have been investigated by the Health Department and Cohen received a written formal warning and fines adding up to $1,000.
Cambi observed that in the picture from Aug. 22, the tables were at a lower height than the seats.
"The tables are at knee height, so it would be a very uncomfortable dinner service if the tables were being used as they were," he said. "From the picture, it was very clear that there was a violation."
After receiving the Dec. 11 complaint from Maffuccio, Cambi said he reached out to Cohen again asking for a narrative and her only response was inquiring on who submitted the claim. Cambi said he had been asking for point-of -sale reports and video surveillance from Cohen since October.
"I did not respond to that because again, it's not responding to what I was asking of her," he said.
At 3 p.m. on the same day, Cambi issued the violation notice and $1,000 in fines to Cohen because of the picture depicting the violation and her noncompliance.
"This is a public place," he said. "You can't lock the door and state that you are closed and turn off the open light and say that you are closed, it doesn't work that way."
Cambi reported that in the past couple of weeks, his department has been unsuccessfully trying to get in touch with Cohen to arrange a call during which they can discuss the issues.
Cohen said the pictures were both taken in a moment in time and don't depict an actual violation, claiming that in the picture from Aug. 22 the patrons did order food and in the picture from Dec. 11, she had only taken her mask off to take a drink. She also said her tables have remained in COVID-19 compliance since Methuselah reopened in the summer.
Cohen feels that Cambi did not follow the proper four steps of enforcement for COVID-19 violations that Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong outlined in the last City Council meeting.
The four steps are verbal consultation, a written warning, fines up to $300 three times at the most, and then cease and desist.
"I was very upset about having to turn around that quickly and come up with the money during the holidays when sales are already down," Cohen said in regards to receiving the $1,000 in fines."
She also said it isn't her burden to provide documentation, as it is the Health Department's job to conduct a thorough investigation. The point-of-sales reports for the bar are not kept, she said, and the internet was shut off during a closure, which made all of the surveillance unavailable.
"We need to follow the civil procedures of presuming innocence before finding guilt," Cohen said. "I don't think there was a safety violation based on just a picture."
There were mixed views from the Licensing Board on the alleged violations.
The fact that Cohen has been asked for documentation many times without response did not sit right with board member Kathy Amuso.
"That is bothersome to me Yuki, that he's asked for the documentation and you haven't given it to him." Amuso said. "The burden is on you here, a lot of this."
Board member Richard Stockwell had an issue with the anonymous nature of the pictures.
"It appears to me that this is not because of any COVID-19 violations, though Yuki did have a mask down and she said she was taking a sip of water, it seems to me that it's more an embarrassment of two city councilors than it is a COVID-19 violation," Stockwell said. "For somebody to be standing on Bradford street at 9:15 at night to try to get a picture of something going on, and we don't know who took the picture, I have a problem with that."
At the meeting, Lampiasi read a short statement that she sent to Armstrong and Chairman Thomas Campoli on Dec. 14 regarding her dining experience on Dec. 11. In her statement, she claims that there were no violations that occurred.
"I think there were violations," Amuso concluded. "Yuki I think people are watching you, they're watching your bar because there have been issues in the past and now the COVID's come up and I think they're watching you because there's a lot of things going on."