Indoor dining may be banned again, threatening many NYC restaurants

By Michael Gold

Since the pandemic forced most New York City businesses to shut down nine months ago, the restaurant industry has warned that it was facing a crisis.

Though many restaurateurs tried to adapt once some of the restrictions were lifted — shifting to takeout and delivery, then moving outside, then cautiously welcoming customers indoors — they say that they are still barely hanging on.

Now, New York City’s restaurants face yet another possible blow. On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, citing the growing spread of the coronavirus, announced a new restrictions model that could halt indoor dining in the city as soon as next week if hospitalization rates do not stabilize — a prospect he said seemed likely.

The move, which Cuomo said was spurred by recent federal guidance that described indoor dining as “particularly high-risk,” could further devastate the industry at the same time that plunging temperatures threaten to keep customers away from outdoor dining.

Restaurant owners are warning that the industry, which employs thousands of low-income workers and is vital to the city’s culture, risks even further collapse without some form of aid.

“They’re not going to make it,” said Tren’ness Woods-Black, the vice president of communications at Sylvia’s, the soul food mainstay in Harlem. “That’s the truth of the matter. There are a lot of businesses that simply will not make it. And that’s heartbreaking.”

Cuomo’s announcement came as the virus has been spreading more rapidly in New York City.

According to the state, the city’s seven-day average rate of positive test results last week surpassed 4% for the first time since late May. On Sunday, 1,416 people were believed to be hospitalized with the virus, according to state data, the city’s highest total since early June.

Included in the governor’s new plan for restrictions is a “clamp down” on indoor dining in any region where hospitalization rates do not stabilize for five days. Cuomo did not provide a specific measure or threshold. His office did not immediately respond to questions seeking more details.

Though restaurants in New York City would be required to end indoor dining, restaurants in other regions where hospitalization rates do not stabilize would have to reduce their indoor dining capacity from 50% to 25%.

New York is not the only state taking this patchwork approach. In California, where cases are also climbing, shutdown restrictions also vary by region.

Cuomo echoed calls for federal financial assistance, saying restaurants and bars had faced “a long year and they have bills to pay.” However, he did not provide any details about what threshold would need to be met for indoor dining to resume once closed, providing an uncertainty that frustrated the city’s restaurant owners.

“When you cut indoor dining without a plan, it really sends the wrong message to everyone,” said George Constantinou, who owns three restaurants in Brooklyn. “To customers, to employees, and everyone in the industry.”

Indoor dining only resumed in New York City at the end of September, even as restaurants in other parts of the state were allowed to resume serving customers indoors throughout the summer.

But there were limits. Establishments were held to seating at 25% capacity and had to keep their tables spaced at least 6 feet apart — a significant reduction in potential business, especially at cramped city restaurants where diners used to be packed into tables.

Still, both Woods-Black and Constantinou said that their restaurants welcomed the change at the time, noting that every table helped with the bottom line in a business where, even before the pandemic, profit margins were often tight.

Woods-Black said that Sylvia’s had started to see more of its business shift indoors as the weather cooled. About 60% of its sales from last week were from indoor dining, she said.

The restaurant had only recently started to hire back staff members that it had laid off to accommodate the change in demand. Now it was facing the prospect of dismissing employees again.

“They’re very worried,” she said of her workers. “And we’re worried for them.”

Still, Sylvia’s planned to do whatever it would take to stay open, she said. Until the governor’s order took effect, the restaurant would continue to serve customers indoors.

Constantinou, who owns Bogota Latin Bistro, Miti Miti Modern Mexican and Medusa Greek Taverna in Park Slope, said that he would spend the next week adjusting his staffing in preparation for the end of indoor dining.

Already, he said, he had been reducing shifts at his restaurants as cooler weather brought fewer customers to his outdoor tables. Over the course of the pandemic, he went from employing more than 150 people to around 80, and he anticipated more cuts would come.

Given the numerous limits placed on indoor dining, he had anticipated that more New Yorkers would choose to eat inside, helping his revenues during what was normally a slower winter season.

“If you have a choice to sit outdoors at 30 degrees or indoors at 25% capacity, I would say 8 out of 10 people would sit indoors as long as it’s not crowded,” he said. “Because people don’t want to freeze.”

Instead, he faced the prospect that the restaurants he had worked to cautiously reopen, whose atmosphere he had carefully cultivated, would again fall silent.

“The restaurants will be dead again,” he said. “And to have outdoor dining in a dead restaurant — it’s not the vibe you really want to give out.”

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