With only a few days left, restaurants across the city are anxiously gearing up for the second coming of indoor dining in New York City. COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are trending downward after a post-holiday surge in the city, but the numbers still remain high, with thousands of new cases recorded in NYC every day.
Still, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he had to weigh the economic impact of businesses remaining shuttered for months against concerns about public health, and ultimately decided to resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity just two months after it was suspended for the second time in December last year.
But amid the chatter surrounding indoor dining’s return, the restaurant industry — both owners and staffers — remain divided about the decision.
Last week, Cuomo announced that NYC restaurants could open dining rooms beginning on Valentine’s Day, one of the busiest days on the calendar for the hospitality industry. But some owners asked for further concessions: they wanted an even earlier return to indoor dining and advocated for increasing capacity limits to 50 percent. On Monday, less than a week later, Cuomo didn’t increase the cap on how many customers can dine inside, but he agreed to allow indoor dining to start February 12.
“Weekends are valuable real estate for us,” says Melba Wilson, the owner and chef at Harlem Southern food spot Melba’s and also the president of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, who will be able to seat about 34 people inside her restaurant with the restrictions. “I wish it had even just been the Thursday before Valentine’s Day.”
Operators like Wilson have pointed to the dining capacity in nearby destinations like Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester County, and even upstate New York as reasons for reopening restaurants at half capacity in NYC as well.
“People are just going in and out of the city constantly,” says Roni Mazumdar, the co-owner of several top Indian restaurants in NYC, including Adda and Rahi. “Why have we made restaurateurs jump through all these hoops in the city?”
Mazumdar and many other restaurant owners have pointed to the state’s own data from last year — which suggested based on limited contact tracing data that restaurants and bars contributed to 1.4 percent of COVID-19 cases statewide compared to nearly 74 percent for private indoor gatherings — as the reason for relaxing restrictions in the city.
However, the state’s data is based on contact-tracing surveys from 46,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases from September to November last year. Those cases only account for about 20 percent of the total 210,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases that were recorded in New York during that time frame. The vast majority of cases either did not know the source of infection or would not disclose it, according to New York’s state budget director Robert Mujica.
Still, there appears to be demand for indoor dining from diners as well. According to Resy, the number of Valentine’s Day reservations grew by 96 percent from January 28 to February 3, after Cuomo announced the return of indoor dining, as compared to bookings for February 14 prior to the news. The number of restaurants on Resy’s platform taking reservations for February 14 grew by 52 percent over the same time period, as compared to the number of restaurants taking reservations for Valentine’s Day prior to the announcement. (Resy declined to share details of its total market size in NYC.)
The growth in booked reservations could be affected in part by other factors outside of the return to indoor dining, according to Resy. With or without the return to indoor dining, customers may not have been thinking about Valentine’s Day reservations more than two weeks in advance, which might have contributed to the growth in reservations in the first days of February. Also, available outdoor dining reservations have been limited in NYC due to the winter weather. The fact that reservations over the past week have nearly doubled is not only a measure of diner interest, but also due in part to the fact that there are simply more total reservations now in circulation.
The state has continually defended its gradual reopening plan in NYC, citing the city’s density and the fact that it was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. back in March and April. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still categorizes indoor dining as a “highest risk” activity, and the recent spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19 has further heightened the risk of indoor dining, and made outdoor dining more risky as well, several health experts say.
But restaurant owners in favor of indoor dining say they have spent tens of thousands of dollars to make their dining rooms safe, including the installation of new HVAC systems, erecting barriers between tables, collecting contact-tracing information, and conducting temperature checks before diners are allowed to eat inside. With months-long financial losses, and inadequate government aid, many feel they have no choice but to reopen in order to have a fighting chance to stay afloat — particularly when outdoor dining is increasingly unpredictable given the winter weather in NYC.
“It is a Catch-22 situation for all of us,” says Jennifer Saesue, co-owner of the popular Noho Thai restaurant Fish Cheeks, who will be able to seat about 17 people inside with the restrictions. “We obviously want to be as safe as possible and everyone is struggling at the moment.”
Kaity Mitchell, the executive pastry chef at Chelsea Italian restaurant Portale, says that the restaurant’s COVID-19 safety measures were key in making her feel safe to return to work for the first mid-pandemic indoor dining stretch last fall, and the same holds true now.
“I feel very comfortable reopening for indoor dining,” Mitchell says, also pointing toward the earlier state report disclosing COVID-19 spread data. “It’s not that [COVID-19 spread in restaurants] doesn’t happen, because of course it does. But it’s not the huge superspreader that having private parties in your home has proven to be.”
There were still health concerns with working shifts during the pandemic, Mitchell says, but she felt that the restaurant took appropriate steps to protect herself and other staffers, including investing in gigantic plexiglass shields to install around diners’ tables and sealing off an open window between the kitchen and the dining room.
Portale plans to reopen temporarily for Valentine’s Day weekend ahead of a fuller reopening in the spring, when the weather is more sustainable for outdoor dining in conjunction with limited indoor dining, according to the restaurant’s management.
Now that the vaccine has been made available to restaurant workers, Mitchell says that too has been “a major breakthrough” in restoring confidence in returning to work. Mitchell was on a text thread with other Portale staffers sharing information on how to sign up for vaccine appointments following Cuomo’s announcement making restaurant workers eligible to receive the vaccine. She was able to sign up for an appointment on February 3 to receive her first shot on February 4, and is scheduled to receive her second shot in early March.
Most of the restaurant owners who are reopening for indoor dining say they’re better prepared this time around, as the state is enforcing all the same guidelines that were in place when indoor dining first returned on September 30 last year.
But for some, the slated return of indoor dining on February 12 will also be their first time allowing customers to dine inside. One such restaurant is Crown Heights Burmese spot Rangoon. The restaurant was gearing up to open just before the state-mandated shutdown went into effect in March, meaning it never actually had a chance to serve customers indoors. Rangoon has focused on takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining even when indoor dining was briefly allowed in the fall.
While Rangoon has been operating with a mix of takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining since opening last year, the restaurant will serve its first customers indoors this coming weekend.
“This winter is not over and every little bit helps,” says Daniel Bendjy, who co-owns the restaurant with Myo Moe, the chef and his wife. “Our outdoor dining overall has been good, but it is tricky. We are still at the mercy of the weather.”
Some restaurant owners have a wait-and-see approach. Samuel Yoo, the chef and co-owner of hit Lower East Side restaurant Golden Diner, says he’s waiting for more of his staffers to get vaccinated now that the state has opened up the process to restaurant workers.
“Just as we’ve been doing throughout COVID, we’re taking this day by day,” says Yoo. Back in September, he had made all the preparations and additions in order to reopen his dining room. But as cases continued to rise through the fall, Yoo said he never felt safe enough to do so.
He’s a little more optimistic this time around due to the vaccinations and the steadily declining numbers, but he’s still not yet ready to open his dining room, which will seat eight people inside with the restrictions. “If enough people feel comfortable, we will do it,” says Yoo, referring to his staff. “We are on track to open.”
Not all restaurant owners, however, are checking in on staff comfortability levels before deciding to reopen for indoor dining. It’s leaving some staffers feeling like their lives are disposable.
Gary Inman, a currently employed line cook in NYC and a member of the city’s chapter of the Restaurant Organizing Project, has been through a rollercoaster of work experiences in the past year. Inman was laid off in the spring and then worked briefly at another restaurant while indoor dining service was allowed in the fall that did not follow proper safety precautions, he says. Employees were “barely” asked to take temperature checks and contact tracing measures among staff were nonexistent, Inman says, until the restaurant got a visit from the Department of Health.
After news broke of indoor dining’s second return, Inman says that the restaurant he currently works at did not ask whether he was comfortable working indoor-dining services. Instead, he was told by the general manager and the chef de cuisine “that it was a great thing, and that it was very exciting,” Inman says. Meanwhile, a new study from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco suggests that line cooks in California suffered the highest risk of mortality out of any essential workers between March and October of last year.
“We’re underpaid, and we’re underinsured,” Inman says. “It’s incredibly frightening.”
The previously published data in New York attributing low spread to restaurants and the new access to vaccination are somewhat reassuring for health safety, Inman says, but neither are a silver bullet. Inman secured an appointment to get a first shot on February 5, but second shots can’t be received until three or four weeks later, depending on the vaccine type. By then, indoor dining service will be in full swing.
Still, Inman feels that he has to put his head down and go along with his employer’s decision to open for indoor dining regardless of his safety concerns. “What are we going to do?” Inman says. “Leave a job when it is getting harder to find work anyways?”
There are many other restaurateurs, though, who don’t feel safe reopening their dining rooms and exposing their staffers to the risk of contracting the virus. Dozens of restaurants across the city began hibernating at the onset of winter, not wanting to rely on the unpredictability of outdoor dining right now, in addition to the safety issues surrounding indoor dining.
Even some restaurant owners who have stayed open through the winter say they’re not opening their dining rooms anytime soon. “As vital as it is for us to stay afloat, it is just not the right time,” says Jennifer Vitagliano, the co-owner of the high-end restaurant the Musket Room, which seats between 30 to 40 people outside, and is open for takeout and delivery as well. “I know I have an unpopular opinion right now, but I don’t think it’s prudent to open without bringing the positivity rate down further first.”
Moshe Schulman, co-owner of the East Village natural wine bars Ruffian and Kindred — both of which are currently hibernating aside from Ruffian’s two-day-a-week wine shop — similarly has no intention of doing indoor dining anytime soon. He plans to reopen his restaurants for outdoor dining sometime in March, but feels it is imperative that more of the general population gets vaccinated before resuming indoor dining.
“I think it’s going to take some more time for our staff and for diners to feel safe about eating inside,” says Schulman. “I would like to see more assurances that vaccines have been distributed, and that indoor dining is safe to some degree.”
Schulman adds the state should be focusing on other aspects of the reopening to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic, like extending the existing 10 p.m. curfew to 12 a.m. “Restaurants lose thousands of dollars in those two hours and that could be the difference between places closing,” says Schulman. “If restaurants are opening at 25 percent indoors, how can two hours outside not be okay?”
Restaurants across the state have joined together to call on the governor to extend the curfew. “Restaurants, especially in New York City, cannot afford to compete on an uneven playing field,” said Melissa Fleischut, the CEO of New York State Restaurant Association. “With Connecticut and New Jersey easing curfews or getting rid of them entirely, we will see customers going out of state, taking the business there.”