'I'd still prefer to sit outside': restaurants open indoor dining to hesitant New Yorkers

Restaurants open at 25% capacity, but many people are reluctant to return and some owners say the opening may not be enough to secure a future

With Plexiglas partitions, UV lights and improved ventilation, New York City restaurants are opening up indoor dining to 25% of their pre-Covid-19 capacity on Wednesday.

Whether the diners will come remains to be seen but six months since the city was put into lockdown, the restaurant industry has its back to the wall.

After bouncing back from a devastating bout with the coronavirus, New York allowed restaurants to serve customers outside in June. But winter is coming and commuting workers and tourists are still scarce. Many city dwellers are still reluctant to return to pre-pandemic restaurant dining habits, and some owners say that being permitted to open indoors to a quarter of normal capacity may not be enough to secure a future.

“Anything to stay alive is helpful, but 25% does nothing for us,” said Mike Giammarino, manager and president of Lombardi’s, which was founded in New York’s Little Italy and claims to be America’s oldest pizzeria.

“It’s not going to stop restaurants closing. Once the weather changes and the little bit of spark that came with outdoor dining fades and there aren’t so many people walking around, you’re going to see a lot more restaurants fail.”

Between rent and taxes, the cost of doing business in the city was already so high, that even with 100% occupancy it could be hard to make the numbers work, Giammarino said.

“I honestly don’t know if we’ll survive. There’s no lunch trade because the offices are still closed, and everywhere you look there are moving trucks for people leaving the city.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio eats lunch with staff members outside the Wo Hop restaurant in Chinatown.
New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, eats lunch with staff members outside the Wo Hop restaurant in Chinatown. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Bleak assessments like that doubtless helped city and state politicians to speed through the plan to reopen indoor dining, subject to restaurants being equipped with enhanced air-filtration systems, temperature checks for customers, masks to be worn at all times except when at tables, and a midnight curfew.

But the plan comes with risks. Positive Covid-19 test rates in the city rose to 1.93% on Monday. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said that he would be “nervous” at reaching a 2% positivity rate, while a 3% positivity rate would be cause for alarm.

On Tuesday, he restated that, for now, New York City was not “at the point of rolling back anything”.

The New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, has also said that if the rate of positive cases go above 2%, he would consider rescinding indoor dining permissions. At a press conference on Tuesday, he said he may re-evaluate the decision to open if positive test rates go above 3%.

As politicians and health experts weigh the risks in reopening indoor dining restaurants owners are also at the mercy of customers, who are also weighing their enthusiasm for being indoors with strangers.

Sitting adjacent to Lombardi’s at Cafe Fiat, Jimmy Wright said he was conflicted. “I’m totally uncomfortable with being in an enclosed space with people without a mask. At 76, Wright said he would make a decision later. “I’m going to eat outside until I freeze.”

His companion, Michael DiClemente, said he would just have make sure that the restaurants are doing what they are supposed to do. “And make sure the customers are not all lit and behaving irresponsibly,” added Wright.

Elsewhere, in Chinatown, the area filled with restaurants that quickly lost trade due to xenophobia almost as soon as the first reports of mysterious contagion in Wuhan were broadcast, lunchtime diners could be found outside tables at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the popular dim sum joint on Doyers street.

“Given a choice I’d still sit outside,’ said Nathalie Allen. “I’m hopeful that it’ll go back to normal but at the same time we’re jumping ship.” Her partner, Jackson Hardaker, said they were moving to Beacon, New York. “We have a young son so we want to be extra careful.”

At Il Buco on Great Jones Street, hair stylist Braydon Nelson said it didn’t yet feel right to dine inside. “It’s a little weird. But it depends on the space” Stylist Katelyn Gray said she would try to support the small restaurants in her Brooklyn neighborhood. “If you know them, then I’d put my trust in them first.”

But others said they would be OK with dining indoors. “I prefer outside, but it all depends. If it’s suitable to sit inside, I’ll sit inside,” said one diner, who gave his name as Zane. His dining partner, Elizabeth, said she would check out the spacing and the ventilation first. “But I’d still prefer to sit outside.”

The mixed signals come as businesses across the city struggle to adapt. By late September, just 15% of the city’s 1.2 million office workers had returned, according to the Partnership for New York City.

The State Restaurant Association survey found nearly two-thirds of members say that without relief, they will probably have to close by year’s end.

The closures are likely to get worse as companies burn through federal and private loans, landlords move to evict non-paying tenants, and winter curtails outdoor dining and shopping. Overall, almost 6,000 New York City businesses closed from 1 March to 11 September, according to Yelp. According to the Partnership for New York City study, the pandemic could permanently close as many as a third of New York’s 230,000 businesses.

Still, those were were dining out on Tuesday afternoon said they were grateful to be doing so. Megan Michaels said the situation was hard even where she works as a server in a restaurant in Pennsylvania, where the 25% capacity rules are already in effect.

“It works, but it sucks because we’re losing money. I wouldn’t be able to live here on 25%. I wish it was back to normal but I think this is how, masks and all, it’s going to be with or without a vaccine.”


Edward Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

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