NYC restaurants face bleak winter with no indoor dining

By Mihir Zaveri, Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner, Nate Schweber and Alexandra E. Petri

After being shut for two months in the spring because of the pandemic, Maria’s Bistro Mexicano in Sunset Park found signs of optimism in the summer. Outdoor dining bolstered sales. Laid-off workers were rehired. The dining room eventually reopened, welcoming dozens of customers every week to tables spaced 6 feet apart.

On Friday, however, the pandemic dampened the restaurant’s progress, as a surge in coronavirus infections prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce a ban on indoor dining in New York City restaurants. The workers at Maria’s will almost certainly have their shifts reduced if they are not let go, as the Brooklyn restaurant hastens to ramp up a delivery operation to survive.

“It all happened just like that, and now we have to go through it again?” Christian Nacipucha, the general manager of Maria’s, said Saturday.

He said the loss of indoor dining would be a “huge change.”

“It’s a headache,” he said. “It’s a huge headache. We do as much as we can to comply with the rules and are still the first to go.”

With coronavirus cases rising, this past weekend was the last time New Yorkers would legally be able to eat indoors at city restaurants for the foreseeable future, a reversal that reflected the worsening conditions of the pandemic. Now, thousands of restaurants face an uncertain future as they brace for brutal winter months that could reduce business to new lows.

Restaurants across the city are moving to lay off waiters, servers and bartenders, throwing the workers’ lives in turmoil and presenting a new setback in New York’s economic recovery. Some restaurants will shut entirely for the winter months. Others, confronting daunting rent payments and mounting bills, wonder how, if at all, they will survive.

“Shutting indoor dining in the winter, when outdoor dining is less feasible, presents an extraordinarily challenging financial situation, when we’re nine months into the pandemic and people have exhausted their personal savings, taken out loans, maxed out credit cards,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “They have significantly less resources than the small resources they even had after the initial shutdown.”

A survey from the New York State Restaurant Association of 6,000 restaurant operators in the state found that more than half said it would be unlikely their restaurants would still be in operation in six months without any government aid. The survey found 78% expected more layoffs over the next three months.

Evidence has grown that indoor dining can be risky, especially if seats are not spaced out, capacity is not reduced and air is not circulating. Recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described eating at indoor restaurants as a “particularly high-risk” activity.

Serving customers at a reduced capacity provided a “sense of normalcy” for many restaurants, but it did not come close to making up for the amount of business lost in the pandemic, said Jonathan Forgash, executive director of Queens Together, a restaurant group that has helped some businesses raise funds by preparing meals for people in need.

The loss of indoor dining adds pressure to struggling restaurants that are already scrambling to find new ways to bolster business, he said. Some are reducing offerings on their menus to limit the cost of food supplies and labor, Forgash said, and others are trying to reach a bigger customer base through third-party delivery apps, despite the added cost of using the apps. Still others are repurposing their dining areas into markets.

“People are literally throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what is sticking or working for now,” he said.

Kenya Britain, the manager of Row House in Harlem, said he hoped that by partnering with a bar that invested in heaters in a large outdoor space, the restaurant would be able to serve enough customers to stay afloat through the winter.

On Saturday, Row House had a half-dozen parties seated indoors and no one outdoors. After the restaurant shut down in the spring, it could at least count on more outdoor dining as the weather warmed, Britain said.

“The difference this time around is people are more prone to staying home,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to get people to come out of their own home and come have a meal.”

Sergey Nagorny, 35, and Marina Nagorny, 36, who were eating inside Row House on Saturday, said they had mostly been avoiding restaurants during the pandemic. But the couple decided to go out before the end — again — of indoor dining. Sergey Nagorny said he doubted he would try outdoor dining this winter.

“Your food’s going to get cold, your butt’s going to get cold, you might as well stay home,” he said. “You want to sit and take off your coat and take off your mask and enjoy yourself.”

Britain, the manager, said he had relatives who died of the coronavirus and that he understood the need for more precautions. He said officials in New York had supported restaurants more than he had expected.

“To their credit, I think they held off as long as they could, I think they tried to do their best,” Britain said. “Ironically, I didn’t think we would be open this long. I thought it would be over before Thanksgiving.”

The ban on indoor dining, however, has also stirred frustration with public officials’ handling of the crisis. Industry groups have ramped up calls for federal or state financial assistance, which could be one component of a federal stimulus package, but agreement in Washington has so far proved elusive.

Sisay Kassa, the owner of Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant in Harlem, said he thought that keeping people 6 feet apart inside, with a reduced capacity of 25%, was relatively safe.

“We’re not asking for 50%,” he said. “We are not expecting a lot.”

He said the business was struggling despite the addition of cabanas where patrons could sit outdoors.

“Nobody is going to make a profit right now,” he said. “It’s just surviving.”

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