Arrests over illicit party boat with 170 guests cruising around New York City

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Mihir Zaveri,

New York Times Service

August 3, 2020 | 11:03 AM

NEW YORK — The Liberty Belle, a riverboat with four bars, three outdoor decks and space for 600 guests, has been touted by its operators as a “favorite venue” of New Yorkers who hold parties, fundraisers and other trendy events on the water.

But now it has become yet another symbol of reckless socializing during the pandemic: The boat was used Saturday to host a party with more than 170 guests, violating state and local social-distancing rules, according to the New York Sheriff’s Office.

Even though the outbreak is mostly under control in New York, city and state officials are expressing growing alarm about the dangers posed by social gatherings where people violate the public health rules imposed to slow the transmission of the coronavirus.

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Events with high drink or ticket prices — like a recent charity concert in the Hamptons featuring DJ performances from the chief executive of Goldman Sachs and the Chainsmokers — have drawn harsh criticism as examples of careless behavior from the wealthy, who have largely escaped the worst of the outbreak as the virus has ravaged poorer communities.

It was unclear what kind of party was held on the Liberty Belle and how much organizers might have charged for admission. The authorities received a complaint about a party boat departing Pier 36 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side around 8:30 p.m., and deputies intercepted and boarded the boat when it returned around 11:30 p.m.

Two owners of the boat, Ronny Vargas and Alex Suazo, were arrested Saturday night and accused of violating several provisions of state law, including operating an unlicensed bar and bottle club, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The boat’s captain, who was not named, was issued a summons for not properly displaying its identification number, the Sheriff’s Office said.

“I want the business in New York to do well,” said Gale A. Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, whose office received the complaint about the illegal party that led to the arrests. “But you have to follow the rules in terms of safety and health.”

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Vargas and Suazo could not immediately be reached for comment. The company that operates the Liberty Belle, Empire Cruises, did not respond to a request for comment.

In an undated statement on its website, Empire Cruises said that it had been “forced to cease our operations until further notice” because of the pandemic. The company said it was following all public health measures.

It was not clear if Empire Cruises was officially operating again.

Trever Holland, the president of the resident association at Two Bridges Tower, an apartment building near the pier, said that Saturday evening he noticed the Liberty Belle from the window of his 19th-floor apartment. It appeared that people were gathering without masks, he said, and that they were not social distancing.

Holland said that before the pandemic, residents of the neighborhood often saw large boat parties on the East River. As the weather had gotten warmer, he had noticed smaller tour boats in the water, but the crowds on the Liberty Belle “just caught us by surprise,” he said.

“It’s obviously a threat to the neighborhood and against everything we’re trying to do as a city,” he added.

Holland took a picture of the riverboat and posted it on Twitter, alerting Brewer. She responded, saying that she had contacted state and local authorities.

State officials in recent weeks have increasingly cracked down on bars and other businesses that violate social-distancing and other safety measures. Dozens of businesses have had their liquor licenses suspended.

Last week, state officials suspended the liquor license of Nello, an Italian restaurant and celebrity hot spot on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, after they said at least eight people were served indoors in violation of public health measures.

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