New York city enters phase 4, but restaurants and bars are left behind

Customers on Sunday at Skin Contact in the Lower East Side in Manhattan.

By Dana Rubistein and Sean Piccoli

For the 25,000 restaurants and bars in New York City, Monday was supposed to be a day of celebration — the turning point when the city would enter Phase 4, the final phase of reopening after the coronavirus outbreak.

Instead, the start of Phase 4 marks a roadblock on New Yorkers’ path to normalcy and serves as another reminder that the city, once the national center of the virus, is still subject to more restrictions than the rest of the state, even though it has flattened the curve.

On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City would enter Phase 4 — with caveats. Zoos and botanical gardens could open, but museums and indoor dining, permitted elsewhere in the state with limitations, would still be banned.

A day earlier, Cuomo said that in New York City, bars and restaurants would be subject to a special “Three Strikes and You’re Closed” regimen: If they overlooked violations of social distancing rules or allowed customers to drink without ordering food, they could lose their liquor licenses after three violations.

The governor also announced that restaurants and bars across the state would be barred from selling alcohol unless drinks were accompanied by a “food item,” a term whose definition has been hotly contested.

Both state and city officials have said that, while they are eager to reopen widely, they also fear that the virus could seep back into the region from Sun Belt states that are experiencing huge surges in coronavirus cases. In states like Florida and Texas, indoor bars and restaurants have fueled the spread of the disease.

“I feel like we’re standing on a beach and we’re looking out at the sea and we see the second wave building in the distance,” Cuomo said Friday.

So instead of a festive atmosphere over the weekend, bars and restaurants were grappling with new, confusing limitations, and had no clear picture of when their economic outlook might brighten.

One bar suddenly listed grilled cheese on its menu. Another made orders of hot dogs compulsory.

At Angry Wade’s in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, a chalkboard in the doorway suggested that the bar was on board with the latest edict governing how New Yorkers may socialize.

It offered customers waffle fries for $8, or a pizza for $10.

But no one who was drinking at the bar late Saturday afternoon had ordered those items. Instead, some customers munched on bruschetta they had brought themselves, served from a large aluminum tray. Others were drinking but showed no signs that they planned to order food.

“We don’t usually have a lot of food, and people don’t usually come here to eat,” said a bartender, who declined to give her name. “So we’ve adapted.”

The governor said the new restrictions were necessary because city revelers needed to be reined in. Since outdoor dining was allowed to resume June 22, he said Thursday, state inspectors had found “significant evidence of failure to comply.”

“It’s wrong. It’s dangerous. It’s selfish. It’s unacceptable,” he said. “It’s also illegal.”

But for bar and restaurant owners, confusion and desperation are the orders of the day. Among other things, they do not understand how the Cuomo administration can single out New York City for these measures, without providing data to support its assertion that the city has more social distancing problems than the rest of the state.

“The rest of New York state is reopened, and that was based on a phased-in process where certain metrics have to be met,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “But now we’re in no man’s land. No one knows when we’re going to be able to reopen and what the metrics are that must be met. It’s very unfair.”

A spokesman for the governor, Jonathan Sterne, countered that State Liquor Authority investigators had found that nearly 10% of downstate establishments were not in compliance with the pandemic regulations.

He said the number of complaints about city establishments to the state’s task force on bars and restaurants jumped 13% after the resumption of outdoor dining. He was unable to immediately provide any comparative data about other regions of the state.

The scene on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, over the weekend, where maskless revelers converted the commercial strip into a de facto dance club, seemed to prove the governor’s point that some New York City residents were ignoring the pandemic restrictions.

De Blasio, who often clashes with the governor, was on the same page when it came to the Steinway crowds.

“Party’s over,” de Blasio said on Twitter on Sunday night. “Dedicated sheriff patrols will be on Steinway until further notice. They’ll enforce closing times, issue summonses and work with the NYPD to keep the roadways clear. We haven’t beaten COVID-19 yet. We can’t let up now.”

Michael Gianaris, the state senator for the district, said people were eager to get back to normal and were ignoring the reality that the virus was still a threat.

“I think people are frustrated after being cooped up for months and are anxious to be out,” he said. “Younger people who feel they are invincible to the virus need to realize that, first of all, they’re not, but second of all, they’re putting everyone around them in danger. It needs to stop.”

Businesses have accepted social distancing restrictions, Rigie said, but fail to grasp how the governor’s latest decree requiring the sale of food with alcohol will protect New Yorkers.

“How does having an order of wings with a beer make you safer from COVID-19 than just having a beer alone?” he asked. “But then you can have multiple beers with that order of wings and that’s OK? We’re just asking for thoughtful, clear requirements that protect public health and safety and that businesses can rely on and understand.”

Struggling restaurant owners were not the only ones grappling with the ever-changing regulatory landscape. The governor’s decision to exclude New York City museums from Phase 4 pained museum operators, including at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. A museum spokeswoman, Jamie Salen, said its exclusion from Phase 4 “will have a significant impact” on its finances.

“How do we do our best to make sure the institution itself survives, long-term?” she asked.

Sterne said the upstate-downstate museum disparity was a simple function of density.

“Because New York City was the hardest-hit hot spot in the country and is one of the most dense areas in the United States — everything that happens in New York City is amplified exponentially compared to upstate,” he said.