Legislative Update

Volume CIV, No. 1January, 2004

Heather Beaudoin


New nightlife license eliminates cabaret law

The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) has announced a proposal that would abolish the cabaret law and institute a new nightlife license.

New York has a long and complicated history of cabaret laws, which were basically ways the city could regulate bars and restaurants. The laws were last updated in the late 1980’s, thanks in part to Local 802, which helped liberalize them. The latest incarnation of the cabaret law said that if a venue could hold more than 200 people and dancing took place, the venue would have to have a cabaret license from the city.

Under the new “nightlife license,” dancing is not a factor on whether or not a venue needs a license. Instead, any bar or restaurant that generates a certain level of noise – whether or not dancing exists – will need to be licensed. In addition, the law requires venues to provide security to prevent rowdy behavior.

How will this affect musicians? The answer is not yet clear. However, this summer, Bill Moriarity, Bill Dennison, David Lennon, Natasha Jackson, David Sheldon and I met with the commissioner to discuss our concerns about any possibility of live music being penalized in any proposed legislation. Local 802 was assured that live music would not be targeted.

The city’s cabaret law dates back to 1926. Originally, the laws were extremely burdensome to musicians, who were required to get photographed – and fingerprinted! – in order to play in a cabaret.

Later, when cafes became popular, the city decided that these venues did not need a cabaret license, but only if the music in the cafe was made up of “string instruments” (which included piano, bass and guitar). Along the way, Local 802 kept chipping away at the laws to the best of its ability.

This year, we heard that DCA Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra and City Councilmember Alan Gerson were looking to change the cabaret laws once again.

As Allegro went to press, the proposed legislation was in the final drafting stages. Once the legislation is drafted, it needs to be approved by the City Council and the mayor’s office. In my next column, I will provide a more detailed analysis of the nightlife legislation.

A first draft of the proposal was released to the press. Highlights of the proposal include the following.

  • The DCA can use digital sound meters to enforce the city’s noise code.
  • The DCA will be authorized to order occupants to vacate the premises immediately if exit doors or fire doors are found blocked or locked.
  • Establishments with capacity levels of 500 or more occupants will be required to have one state-certified security guard for every 50 occupants. These guards would also be responsible for maintaining order outside the establishment when needed.
  • Nightlife establishments must make a good faith effort to ensure that the crowds entering or leaving do not cause disturbances and that vehicles outside are quiet.
  • Existing fire and zoning regulations will not change.
  • When a new establishment applies for a nightlife license, the corresponding Community Board will have a 45-day comment period to give a recommendation.

Violations for licenses would range up to $250 for the first violation and up to $1,000 for the third violation. If a licensee receives three adjudicated license violations within two years, the DCA will be authorized to padlock the establishment for up to 30 days.

The DCA will be able to revoke a venue’s nightlife license altogether if the location is repeatedly in violation of any three of the following city or state laws: unlicensed sale of liquor; sale of liquor to minors; overcapacity; disabled sprinkler systems, exit signs or emergency lighting; blocked or locked exits; assault; rape or attempted rape possessions of weapons; or homicide.