The decision came after weeks of back-and-forth between city and state leadership, as well as local restaurateurs and community advocates who demanded a comprehensive indoor dining plan before the outdoor initiative, and the warm weather, expires next month.
According to the announcement, eateries will be able to serve customers indoors starting at 25 percent capacity, with tables established at a distance of six feet apart. Restaurants are required to close by midnight and cannot offer bar-top service.
Temperatures will be checked at the door, and patrons must wear masks as long as they are not seated. Diners will also be asked to provide data to contact tracers from the city’s Test & Trace Corps public health initiative.
If COVID-19 infection rates do not significantly increase in the coming months, the governor floated a date of November 1 for when New York City restaurants would transition to 50 percent capacity for indoor dining, as is the case in other parts of the state.
While the governor indicated that the state would reassess indoor dining in New York City if the coronavirus infection rate rises, Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for stricter standards.
He is proposing the city immediately pause indoor dining if COVID-19 positivity rates hit two percent for a seven-day average. As of Friday, the rate for New York City was recorded at 0.7 percent.
While new indoor dining plan may not be viable for all eateries, and is certainly not the lifeline small business owners have been asking for, it signals motion toward relief that many feel is long overdue.
“Opening indoor dining is a step in the right direction for protecting more than 5,500 Brooklyn restaurants that are concerned about surviving the cold winter months,” said Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce president Randy Peers. “Brooklyn’s restaurant industry is essential to the borough’s economic recovery, and safely reopening indoor dining will help these small businesses pay rent, predict and plan for the future and rehire staff.”
Over the last six months, it has been difficult for eateries across the city to pay rent, as well as finance their compliance with new COVID-19 safety protocols, with the revenue from takeout, delivery and limited outdoor dining.
A recent survey by the NY State Restaurant Association found that nearly two-thirds of the 1,000 participating establishments reported they would be forced to permanently shutter without any targeted government relief.
Queens Chamber of Commerce president Tom Grech made his own prediction concerning the future culinary landscape, estimating that up to half of the borough’s nearly 6,000 restaurants “may never again see the light of day” if the industry’s crisis does not change course.
“That is a staggering toll,” said Grech at a press conference outside of Atlantic Diner in Richmond Hill. “Restaurants define neighborhoods.”
He spoke to the role the foodservice industry plays in economic mobility for so many immigrants who come to the city and often must start from square one, sometimes without a strong grasp of the English language.
“You don’t need to be bilingual to wash dishes, peel potatoes or make salads” explained Grech. “Restaurants are the first stop on the career ladder. By having these establishments close and stay closed, you’re eliminating an entire rung for these people to move up.”
In the case of the Atlantic Diner, proprietor John Thanosopolis says that due to financial impacts, he had to reduce his staff from 50 to just 15 at the height of the pandemic in April.
“That means 35 families are out of work,” noted Thanosopolis, assuring he is doing everything he can to hire those individuals back as business improves.
The press conference, organized by Assemblyman David Weprin, was held one day before the governor’s announcement on indoor dining.
Weprin, along with Grech and other small business and community advocates, criticized the fact that the city’s restaurants were still restricted to outdoor dining while nearby areas like Nassau County enticed Queens customers with indoor service.
A class-action lawsuit filed by the owners of Il Bacco in Little Neck will move forward despite the lifted indoor dining ban, The lawsuit now includes more than 1,000 local restaurants that still feel discriminated against.
“At 25%, some of my clients won't even bother opening,” Attorney James Mermigis told PIX 11 last week. “Twenty-five percent does not pay bills, it's an insult,”
Elsewhere in New York, diners are not subject to temperature checks and contact tracing, as will become the standard in the city come October.
For now, however, some elected officials and community leaders are focusing on celebrating a small victory in the city’s recovery process.
“I am pleased to see that New York City will be able to join our neighboring Nassau County and enjoy indoor dining,” said State Senator Joseph Addabbo, “allowing restaurants to continue to operate as the colder months approach.
“This will allow many restaurant owners along vital commercial strips in my district like Cross Bay Boulevard, Metropolitan Avenue, Myrtle Avenue, Main Street, Grand Avenue and Rockaway Beach Boulevard to remain in business and bring employees back, providing an economic boost to the state,” he added.