Return of indoor dining too little, too late

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There are few industries more synonymous with New York City than restaurants.

From hole-in-the-wall food stalls, to lavish fine dining, to kitschy chains and everything in between, the city has so many eateries that if one endeavored to eat at all of them, for all three meals every day, it would take nearly 26 years.

But those numbers could be dwindling. The New York State Restaurant Association says as many as two-thirds of the state’s dining establishments could close by the end of the year if there’s no financial rescue.

After months of relying on takeout, curbside pickup and eventually outdoor dining, Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally opened the doors — literally — to eating inside New York City restaurants by the end of the month. It’s not without restrictions, however, as restaurants will only be able to fill a quarter of its tables.

Restaurants statewide need financial assistance, restaurant association president Meredith Fleischut said — even ones that already have reopened indoor dining. Even with outdoor dining and takeout, many restaurateurs are running low on cash.

“What they were really saying was that they felt they needed more financial assistance from the federal government,” Fleischut said. “So, more (Paycheck Protection Program), a designated restaurant relief fund, or Economic Injury Disaster Loans funding, grant programs — something at the federal level coming before the end of the year.”

For a typical restaurant, breaking even financially means mixing takeout, delivery, and an indoor dining room half-full, Fleischut said. But breaking even is not the same as actually making money.

 

Flexing gym muscle

The city is the final New York region to bring indoor dining back after restaurants were forced to shut down in mid-March. Cuomo opened the door for indoor dining in the city Sept. 9, nearly two weeks after a $2 billion class action lawsuit was filed against the governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio for delaying indoor dining.

The legal action was led by Il Bacco Ristorante, an Italian eatery on the far eastern edge of Queens which, according to Forbes, is just 500 feet from Long Island’s Nassau County. A restaurant there could have allowed indoor dining as early as June, making 500 feet ultimately feel more like 500 miles.

The lawsuit follows a path similar to what some of New York’s gym owners took forcing the governor’s hand to create a reopening plan for them late last month. That should be no surprise since both actions have the same lawyer — James Mermigis, a business law attorney out of Syosset, near Long Island’s Oyster Bay.

As of Sept. 3, more than 300 other restaurants have joined Il Bacco in the class action, likely made moot now that Cuomo flinched again.

But what isn’t moot is the effect indoor dining’s return might have on local restaurants and cafes. The Bronx Alehouse on West 238th Street has been a community staple for more than a decade. Although it adopted takeout and outdoor dining models to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, owner James Langstine is itching to get back to a seemingly normal indoor restaurant experience.

“I’m definitely looking forward to a step in the right direction and getting back to the business that we’ve all been in and the business that we love to run, slowly but surely,” Langstine said.

The Alehouse shut down for nearly six weeks while the eatery transitioned to a takeout model at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The eventual return of outdoor dining was a relief for the Alehouse, even though it still limited the number of customers they could serve.

The weeks-long delay to return indoor dining to New York is something Langstine is a little less thrilled about. It wasn’t enough to get him to sign on to Mermigis’ lawsuit, but it doesn’t mean Langstine hasn’t expressed a few of the same grievances, especially as positive test rates in the city are lower than most other parts of the country.

“If you look at the testing numbers for the city and the Bronx compared to the rest of the state, it’s not significantly different,” Langstine said. “We seem to have been treated differently than the rest of the state, especially when you consider that we’re only a mile down the road or something from places that have been open.”

 

A little empathy

The city’s dense population, as well as Cuomo’s doubts over whether social distancing guidelines could be enforced, were two major factors in the delay to return indoor dining. Cuomo had suggested potentially re-allocating some 4,000 police officers to a coronavirus task force, who could be stationed at city restaurants to enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing.

That idea, however, met some opposition, including from Democratic congressional nominee Jamaal Bowman, who shared his views on Twitter that same day. In a reply to a tweet paraphrasing Cuomo’s suggestion to introduce a New York Police Department presence at restaurants with indoor dining, Bowman simply wrote, “no.”

Even with the green light from the state, not every local eatery is jumping on board the indoor dining train. Emily Weisberg, owner and manager of Moss Cafe, has opted out. Her restaurant closed March 17, and remained closed for regular business until late August.

For the last few weeks, Moss has opened for pickup service and next-day delivery, with a few tables on the sidewalk for outdoor dining. And that’s how it’s going to stay.

“We have pivoted our model and invested in redoing so much, we did it in a way that would continue to be, in theory, successful regardless of indoor dining,” Weisberg said. “I think it’s very unstable and risky. This isn’t an art museum or a clothing store where you can walk around with your mask on the whole time. When people come inside a restaurant, they take their mask off. And for the entire time.”

Weisberg isn’t afraid to call the police when a customer refuses to comply with safety measures, but still, she worries about the possibility of being sued for discrimination by customers who don’t want to wear masks.

As far as rent goes, Moss Café’s landlord has been cooperative — something Weisberg knows isn’t true for everybody. Moss Cafe at 25 percent capacity would only open three tables — not enough to justify risking the health of customers and her small staff. But for many other restaurants, opening for indoor dining could be their last chance at surviving the pandemic.

“I have heard from vendors and other restaurant owners and neighbors alike that they’re desperate to see indoor dining come back,” Weisberg said. “And I really empathize with that.”

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