Every New Yorker has felt the effects of COVID-19, but the hospitality industry, particularly mom-and-pop-owned restaurants, are among the hardest hit. The impacts have been felt throughout the industry, as many restaurants have closed their doors permanently, while others face serious financial risk. Although the City has permitted outdoor dining, restaurants are still struggling.
For a while now, the curve has flattened throughout New York State; yet the food industry is still held in quarantine, up against a confusing and sordid directive to keep patrons barred from eating inside, relegating them to dine on the streets and sidewalks outside. Restaurant owners are at their wits’ – and wallets’ – end, trying to lure customers to outdoor dining. Most high-end establishments that lack parking lots or proper infrastructure to erect tents are ready to call it quits on businesses they spent years, if not decades, building.
In recent days, New York government officials have been toying with regulation protocols. At his Tuesday morning press briefing, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo blanketly stated, “Indoor dining will only resume once local governments come up with an inspection and enforcement mechanism to make sure restaurants are in compliance with their maximum occupancy limits.” Over the course of the pandemic, the governor has taken aim at New York City bars and eating establishments that failed to provide enforcement, entitling the chaos a “nightmare.” The State designed a taskforce under the leadership of its Liquor Authority that has since issued many thousands of notices to violators, mostly bar owners. The governor also explained that the taskforce is unable to handle its current workload in the 57 counties where indoor dining has already been initiated, and would be incapable of monitoring a mass reopening of indoor eating at restaurants, as their number doubles that of pubs. The governor then pointed out that when indoor dining reopened in upstate New York, COVID-19 clusters emerged and there were instances of a disregard for the compliance regulations in place.
The question of which agency will eventually take up the responsibility to impose obedience to the rules has plagued local officials. Assembly Member David Weprin of District 24 organized a rally alongside many restaurant owners and their advocates this Tuesday afternoon in front of the Atlantic Diner at South Richmond Hill, just outside of his office, where he demanded the City of New York to permit “limited capacity indoor dining.” Although the City has permitted outdoor dining, restaurants are still struggling. “We must, at this point, prioritize both, a sensible economic re-opening and public health,” said Weprin. “If you simply cross the Queens-Nassau County border, restaurants are permitted to do limited capacity indoor dining, along with outdoor dining. If we want to give restaurants a fighting chance, the City must permit limited capacity indoor dining, just as the rest of the State does,” he continued.
At his briefing, the governor also pointed a finger at New York City’s elected officials and called the implementation of the rules “politically difficult” if he were to set the standards. City inhabitants are quite bothered by Long Island’s eateries already being allowed to host indoor dining as part of phase three of the State reopening mandate. In response, the governor implied that New York City establishments could not conduct themselves in a safe manner, noting, “They are doing better compliance,” in reference to Island bistros and cafés.
New York hit a milestone this past week, as 30 days passed where the threshold stood steady at less than one percent of positive coronavirus cases in the State. A group of a patrons sitting at the outdoor dining of Naomi’s Pizza on Main Street were asked their feelings on this issue as the Weprin rally was underway elsewhere in Queens. Miriam, who was lunching with her good friend Ayelet, reacted: “Outdoor dining was feasible for some time, but it certainly is not enough. So many stores are losing lots of possible business.”
Weprin was quick to point out that the seasons will soon be changing, as is the unpredictability of the weather. “There has to be a plan in place once it gets cold to allow for indoor dining,” he reiterated.
The inaction from the higher echelons of government led GOP State Assembly Woman Nicole Malliotakis and Republican City Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo to file suit against the governor and against Mayor Bill de Blasio for their handling of the stressed eateries. Malliotakis said about the reopening procedures, “New York City meets the metrics like every other municipality in the State, yet restaurants are being prohibited from having any indoor dining, and there is no justification for this.” The duo hopes to persuade a judge to stop the impulsive methods of Cuomo and de Blasio before it’s too late, when the temperature drops and more restaurants are forced into closure.
The Queens Jewish Link encountered a 69th Road resident, David M., grabbing a bite at his corner by Bravo Pizzeria. “This outdoor dining is unsustainable for much longer. Just look at the restaurant connected to this very pizzeria; it remains shuttered.” Proprietor Benji Haimoff, who just last week acquired ownership of Bravo, confirmed that the restaurant could not reopen until indoor dining resumed to some capacity. But he added, “Our pizzeria is now open till 9:30 p.m. for takeout and we are delighted to serve the community.”
As small clusters of the deadly virus continue to sprout in predominately Jewish communities, including Forest Hills and Williamsburg, the City remains cautious in their reopening of indoor dining.
The diner owner where the Weprin rally was held took a different stance. John Athanasopoulos explained, “The last six months have been hard; almost 35 families are out of work. If Long Island can open, we can open up.”
Thomas Grech, President and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, quipped at the rally, “3,000 restaurants may never see the light of day. That is a staggering toll for what could be America’s fourth largest city,” reflecting on the size of Queens. “Restaurants define the neighborhoods. You do not need to be bilingual to work in a restaurant. It is the first step on the career ladder. Closing the restaurants illuminates an entire wrong on the career ladder,” he added.
To save restaurants from closure, a comprehensive state or federal relief package must be devised, according to The New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA). A representative who answered our phone call reported, “Eatery owners are playing with fire as they contemplate breaking the indoor dining mandate, as they are risking permanently closing their doors.” The rep added, “NYSRA members are hoping for a relief effort to help keep these important community resources viable and New Yorkers working.”
For his part, de Blasio only says that restaurants will be treated differently than bars and will be allowed to open when it is safely appropriate. At the same time, New York City malls reopened at 50 percent capacity Wednesday morning, obviously without any indoor dining. Casinos also reopened across the state on the same day; however, they must abide by a 25 percent of capacity limit. Casino websites called for their patrons to follow their mask mandates and practice social distancing, as the state will be out enforcing the regulations.
Along Main Street in Kew Gardens Hills and throughout Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike, waiters and waitresses keep smiling beneath their masks as they are stationed at the doorways of virtually every eatery, eager to serve takeout or temporary dining tents, as they await changes to indoor dining laws.
By Shabsie Saphirstein with Sergey Kadinsky