Last Wednesday, the New York City Hospitality Alliance was joined by eatery owners from throughout the five boroughs to demand a plan from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the alliance, argued that restaurants throughout the state have restarted indoor dining safely, but New York City is the exception.
“Why can you eat indoors in Yonkers, but not in the Bronx?” he asked. “Why can you eat indoors in Nassau County, but not in Queens?”
According to a survey by the hospitality alliance of nearly 500 restaurant and bar owners, 83 percent of respondents said they could not fully pay their commercial rent in July. The group also noted that local restaurants and bars employ 200,000 fewer people than they did in March.
According to unemployment figures analyzed by the group, nearly 60 percent of hospitality industry employees are jobless.
While the expansion of outdoor dining has helped, Rigie said that was never meant as a solution.
“Our small business owners are in a dire situation,” he said. “They understand public health and safety are paramount.
“But we need fair and equitable policies,” Rigie added. “We cannot discriminate against one section or region of the state.”
Rigie said even public schools and indoor gyms are reopening, but not indoor dining. He said restaurants need a plan because they need to buy products and rehire staff well ahead of any full reopening date.
Despite meeting and sustaining all benchmarks required for reopening, elected leaders have not come up with a plan for New York City restaurants, he said.
“The reopening plan around the rest of the state has worked,” he said. “It’s time to try it in New York City.”
Robert Bookman, general counsel for the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said there have been little to no incidents with indoor dining in the rest of the state. Daily infection rates also are going down.
“We think the science is clear,” he said. “There is no health or scientific basis to continue to discriminate against New York City.”
George Constantinou owns four restaurants in total, including three in Brooklyn, all of which are located along Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. Those eateries include Bogota Latin Bistro, Miti Miti and Medusa Greek Taverna, his newest restaurant.
Although Constantinou employed 132 people before the pandemic, the majority of them were laid off during COVID-19. With the help of outdoor dining, between 60 and 70 employees have returned to work.
But the Brooklyn restaurant owner said outdoor dining is a lifeline, not a solution. He said he continues to struggle to pay bills, including rent at pre-COVID rates.
“It’s stressful and scary,” he said. “As the summer months wind down, it’s difficult when there is no plan for the future of my business. I don’t know what tomorrow brings.”
Blair Papagni had to close Jimmy’s Diner, which she had been running since 2007 in Greenpoint, due to the pandemic. She noted that not only did she raise her three kids there, but she kept the same staff in the kitchen for over a decade.
Papagni said she looked at the 11 months left on her lease, a liquor license to renew and a “real lack of a clear path to indoor dining” as factors for her decision.
“The idea of having to lay off my staff again, that would be devastating,” she said. “We had to say goodbye to them with no idea of what would happen.”
Instead, she shifted her focus to her other restaurant in Greenpoint, Anella, which has a small garden in the back that seats 14 people. But she warned that come November, it will be too cold to dine outside, which could lead to more layoffs.
“Trust us that we can continue as restaurant owners to rise to the challenge,” Papagni said. “Winter is coming.”
Alfonso Zhicay, the owner and chef of Casa Del Chef in Woodside, can seat 28 people indoors. He also invested in an outdoor dining setup, buying equipment, flowers and a canopy, but he said outdoor dining isn’t generating enough income to survive.
“It’s really hard to understand and predict how small, little restaurants like mine will survive this time,” he said. “Being a small restaurant, it’s impossible to maintain this way.”
Zhicay added that not only is he not making enough business, but he isn’t making enough profit to pay rent.
“Everyday, we’re going negative,” he said. “It might be better to shut down.”
Though the New York City Hospitality Alliance wants to work cooperatively with elected officials on a plan, Rigie said business owners around the city want to go to court. He noted that when other industries sued, they got a reopening plan and date.
Bookman added that the organization has never brought a lawsuit in its history, but all legal options are now on the table.
“We will monitor their response,” he said.
On Friday, de Blasio was asked about indoor dining on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He said it’s not impossible, but based on what city officials have seen around the world, New York City owner shouldn’t expect to open their doors anytime soon.
He noted that Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior health advisor, pointed to the example of Hong Kong, which started to see a resurgence of COVID-19 cases related to indoor dining and bars. It has also happened in Europe, the mayor said.
“We’ll keep looking, but we’re not doing it now,” said de Blasio, who said the city will focus on outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. “Those options will keep going, but not now for indoor.”
The mayor said outdoor dining got nearly 100,000 people back to work, and will continue in 2021. He said that’s safe, but not indoor dining.
“Unfortunately, it’s proof positive that a lot of problems come from going back to the normal reality we knew with indoor dining,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t true, it just is true.”
When asked why schools can fully reopen but not restaurants, de Blasio responded that there’s a “night and day reality” between the two. In schools, which are run by the public sector, there are safety precautions, like wearing masks.
“We don’t control what happens inside a restaurant or a bar at every hour,” he said. “We know people don’t wear masks in restaurants and bars. By definition, you’re eating and drinking.
“The chance of transmission goes up greatly,” de Blasio added. “I’m not happy about it, but it’s just the truth, and New Yorkers actually prefer the blunt truth.”