The commercial corridors of Jackson Heights are lined with one of the city’s most diverse dining scenes.
But for many small businesses, like Mojito’s Restaurant and Bar, staying afloat during a pandemic is proving to be costly and challenging.
Owner Marcos Munuoz says it has been the temporary relief funds and legislation, which allows for the sale of alcoholic drinks to-go, that have been vital lifelines to staying open.
First signed as an executive order in March 2020, the 15-month temporary legislation of drinks-to-go expired in June 2021.
NY State Governor Kathy Hochul said in her State of the State address, back in January, that her administration intends to make the temporary program a permanent one in her upcoming budget proposal. But after the issue was left out of the latest Assembly and Senate budget plans, the return of the popular pandemic measure may have to wait before the rules and regulations of the program are made by the State Liquor Authority.
Having closed for two months at the start of the pandemic, Munoz says his Latin fusion restaurant at 81-01 Northern Boulevard is starting to “fall apart again.”
“It’s not that we want it, we really need it,” Munoz said of the drinks-to-go initiative.
Munoz was joined by elected officials to call for the once-temporary program to return indefinitely.
NY State Senator Jessica Ramos, who also chairs the labor committee, said that no other industry had it harder throughout the pandemic than restaurants. She agrees that measures should be passed to make to-go drinks a permanent revenue-generator for businesses like Mojito’s.
“There were seemingly laws changed every week, new executive orders, new changes to the way they were allowed to build outdoor seating, and they had to pivot and adopt at every corner at every step of the way,” said Ramos, a high school classmate of Munoz.
“And because of that many restaurants in our community and across the city and state have seen dwindling profit margins, which of course translates to fewer jobs in our communities and less access to food in many corners of our state,” Ramos said.
Ramos is the prime co-sponsor of a senate bill (S.8184) which would make the drinks-to-go program permanent.
Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas pointed to a statewide survey of 700 New Yorkers conducted by the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), which found more than 78 percent in support of alcohol-to-go becoming permanent. Another survey by the NYSRA found that 98 percent of restaurant operators would resume offering drinks-to-go if the program was made permanent.
“When I talk about my district, I tell folks, I don’t have a library, I don’t have a hospital, I don’t have a community center, I don’t have a senior center and I don’t have NYCHA,” said Gonzalez-Rojas, whose district includes the heart of Jackson Heights and parts of Woodside and Elmhurst.
“But what I do have are the best restaurants in New York City,” she said.
In Woodside, Neir’s Tavern hosted a similar press conference with the NYSRA last month, where unified calls were made for the legislation to be included in the final budget.
On the two-year anniversary of the enacted emergency orders that shuttered all restaurants, NYSRA President and CEO Melissa Fleischut reflected on how the industry has maneuvered throughout the pandemic.
“Two years ago, no one could have anticipated the plight that laid ahead for our industry. Restaurants quickly pivoted to robust take-out programs to keep from drowning. For 15 months, alcohol-to-go allowed restaurants to survive by offering customers their full menu offerings as we were hampered by various restrictions and the rise of variants,” Fleischut said. “Alcohol-to-go is critical to the recovery of our $50-billion industry and has the support of 78 percent of New Yorkers. We know there is support in both houses and we urge the state to include alcohol-to-go in the final enacted budget.”