New York restaurants face make-or-break moment as indoor dining arrives

Beginning on Wednesday, restaurants can seat diners inside at 25% capacity – but the outdoor program will be less viable in colder weather amid fears of another surge

From its chandelier-lit temples of fine dining to its greasy spoons open 24/7, New York is a city with more than 25,000 restaurants. Every year they draw millions of locals and tourists from around the world – and nobody has been allowed to eat inside of one for six months.

That all changes on Wednesday, when restaurants can seat customers inside at 25% capacity, the latest relaxation in the rules imposed on New York after the coronavirus struck.

Restaurant owners from across the five boroughs described it as a make-or-break moment as they head into the winter. The outdoor dining program that has kept many businesses afloat will be less viable in the colder weather, and there are fears of another surge in Covid-19 cases as the city eases restrictions.

Regina Migliucci-Delfino is the fifth generation of her family to run Mario’s, the oldest restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, regarded by many as New York’s real Little Italy.

“This winter, if the coronavirus cases go up and indoor dining is reduced … I don’t even want to think about it. We’ll all be out of business, and not just the restaurants, the whole local economy of this historically and culturally important neighbourhood,” said Migliucci-Delfino.

She reopened around Fourth of July weekend after four months of being closed, during which time her father, Joseph Migliucci, 81, died from Covid complications.

“It’s been hard coming back, especially without him, but I promised him I would do it, so here I am,” said Migliucci-Delfino.

Mario’s, which opened in 1919, has made it through the summer thanks to a federal government stimulus loan – which enabled Migliucci-Delfino to catch up on bills and salaries – and outdoor dining.

The city authorized weekend street closures in July to create piazza-style dining on Arthur Avenue, just like in the old country, giving the area’s historic food establishments a much-needed boost.

Still, several eateries have cut their opening hours to just weekends and dinner service, and the fall in foot traffic has had a significant effect on local food suppliers, which depend heavily on the restaurants for trade.

Many restaurants have not survived the tumult.

At least 1,796 restaurants permanently closed in the New York-Newark-New Jersey metropolitan area between 1 March and 31 August, according to research by Yelp. This includes about 500 since early July.

In August, 174,000 people who worked in food and drink services in the five boroughs were still out of work, according to federal unemployment data,

Kitchen staff members work in the basement of Go Believe Bakery in Chinatown.
Kitchen staff members work in the basement of Go Believe Bakery in Chinatown. Photograph: Scott Heins/The Guardian

About 11 miles south from Arthur Avenue, “for rent” signs dot the landscape in lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, which felt the harmful effects of coronavirus before the March lockdown.

In the first months of the year, when coronavirus was shutting down cities in China, the neighborhood’s normally heaving streets were deserted because of xenophobic fears.

It caused an immediate drop in business at Kwok’s Food King, which Karen Huang’s parents opened in 1975. The 34-year-old now runs the Chinese takeout place with her siblings, who closed the business from March to early July, unsure if they would be able to reopen.

“We were open 364 days a year and only closed on Thanksgiving. And we had to strategize,” Huang said.

In that difficult period, Huang discovered the community-grown initiative Welcome to Chinatown, which provides business advice, support and grants. The siblings are now figuring out how to make indoor dining work, having swapped their open-kitchen experience for plastic barriers and mask-wearing staff.

“We’re all in,” Huang said. “We don’t see ourselves closing for the winter.”

But she and her siblings share the citywide concern about how much they can protect themselves and their staff when indoor dining returns.

New York City was a center of the global outbreak in the spring, but has since seen some relief. The state’s infection rate had been below 1% for 37 days straight as of 13 September. And easing restrictions have not yet been followed by a surge in cases as has happened in other parts of the US and world.

But there are worrying signs. A recent study found adults with Covid were more than twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant in the two weeks before getting sick compared with adults without the virus. In addition, people with Covid who did not report recent close contact with another infected person were more likely to report going to a bar or coffee shop.

The study found no link between Covid and activities such as shopping, gatherings in a home, using public transportation, or going to an office setting, salon, gym, or church or religious gathering. Eating and drinking with a mask is impossible, whereas none of the other activities preclude mask use.

“This study suggests that activities that make it difficult to wear a mask or keep at least 6ft of distance between people, including locations that offer onsite eating or drinking options, may increase your risk for Covid-19,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Kiva Fisher.

More research is needed; the study was not designed to assess restaurant safety or exposure trends in restaurants, and did not differentiate between indoor/outdoors eating and drinking or consider the layout of places.

“Direction, ventilation and intensity of airflow might affect the spread of the virus, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to recommendations,” added Fisher.

Health concerns are among a host of issues restaurant owners have voiced about the indoor dining program. There are also worries about the need to hire more people who would be laid off if the city later suspends indoor dining, the inadequacy of 25% capacity to cover costs and the chance customers won’t be comfortable eating inside.

Even in the more spacious and suburban borough of Staten Island, restaurant owners are skeptical of indoor dining’s benefits.

Leo Zalaya, an owner of the Maizal Mexican restaurant, couldn’t talk about indoor dining without incredulous laughter. Maizal can sit 38 people outdoors, but the 25% capacity rule will allow only 14 people inside. “For a restaurant, that’s just not enough,” said Zalaya, who has run the restaurant with his family for nearly 11 years.

They had to close Maizal’s second location in Queens because it sat 140 people and was popular for parties - an unsustainable model for the new world. But in Staten Island, a steady stream of loyal customers, outdoor dining and a well-timed decision to buy the restaurant building in January have kept them going.

“Surprisingly, business has been very good,” Zalaya said. “Of course we know it’s temporary, we know winter is coming, so now what? But it’s the cycle of a restaurant: you can only see one week ahead.”

Friday evening dinner service at The Row Harlem, where business is 30% higher than last summer.
Friday evening dinner service at the Row Harlem, where business is 30% higher than last summer. Photograph: Scott Heins/The Guardian

Business has also been good at the Row Harlem, a cosy restaurant bar that opened in January 2019 and quickly became a favorite local hangout.

The first six weeks or so of the pandemic were tough, but business has been booming over the summer – up 30% on last year – with all five furloughed service staff back at work plus family members employed to cope with outdoor diners, takeout and catering.

The owner, Al Hassell, a local man with no prior hospitality experience, attributes the success to his good quality reasonably priced food, support from friends and family who’ve helped create a buzz, and old-fashioned Harlem hustle.

“In Harlem we’re used to surviving, so when hard times come along like Covid, we hustle, we adapt. This place is for the community, so they come out in support and it’s popping every night,” said Hassell.

But, despite the summer success, winter could be make or break, according to Hassell. “We need indoor dining to survive the winter, because takeout alone won’t cover the bills, or salaries, no way.”

An employee at The Row Harlem walks through the outdoor dining sections during Friday evening dinner service.
An employee at the Row Harlem walks through the outdoor dining area. Photograph: Scott Heins/The Guardian

Across the city, restaurants have created their own fundraisers to support their workers, many of whom include undocumented people who pay taxes, but are ineligible for economic relief programs and unemployment.

The industry is also notorious for depending on its low-wage workforce. One in six restaurant workers live below the official poverty line, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Poverty rates in the industry are highest for women, Black people and Hispanics.

Nationally, the food and drink industry has come together to try and force a response from federal and local governments.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition formed in response to the pandemic’s affect on 11 million workers nationwide, and it is pushing for Congress to pass legislation to direct funding to these small businesses. The group argues the $120bn fund in the Restaurants Act would generate $271bn in economic returns and has received support from more than 230 congress members.

If any relief comes, it will be too late for some anchors of New York’s dining scene, from hip Soho cafes to homey neighborhood institutions.

Queens is New York’s most diverse borough and Astoria, a popular dining district, is jam packed with restaurants offering authentic food from across the world alongside Italian delis, Irish pubs and Greek tavernas.

Riccardo’s by the Bridge – a restaurants and events venue in Astoria where local Tony Bennett worked as a singing waiter before finding fame – closed its doors this month after 70 years.

On Twitter, Bennett said: “I always felt that if I never made it as a performer, I would still be happy as a singing waiter. I’m very sorry to hear of its closing after nearly 70 years.”

Amid the closures and chaos, at least 120 new restaurants have opened since indoor dining was banned six months ago.

Alicia Hines opened her first restaurant, Likkle Jamaican Dumpling House in February, shortly before the city locked down.
Alicia Hines opened her first restaurant, Likkle Jamaican Dumpling House, in February, shortly before the city locked down. Photograph: Scott Heins/The Guardian

A couple of weeks after Alicia Hines held a soft opening for her Likkle Jamaican Dumpling House in Brooklyn, the city locked down. She pivoted her business to takeaway, which had not been in the original plan, though outdoor dining was ultimately her “saving grace”.

This is Hines’s first restaurant after decades of cooking and catering on the side while working as an educator. Her two passions meld inside the shop, where customers can sign up for a $8.84 library card to borrow reads from her collection of books on race, class and gender, while waiting for an order of jerk pork dumplings or cold sesame noodles.

Revenue is nowhere near the projections formulated pre-pandemic, but Hines is taking encouragement in the increase in business and repeat customers. Hines cited the Jamaican proverb “Wi likkle but wi tallawah” to underline her steadfastness in this tumultuous time.

“I certainly know there may be a point at which I literally won’t be able to make enough to support my workers, to do all the things, to pay my taxes, and when that moment comes, I’ll deal with it,” Hines said. “But in the meantime, I have to do whatever I can and not just for me, but also for the community I am part of.”


Amanda Holpuch and Nina Lakhani in New York

The GuardianTramp

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