After turning his back on an industry for 90 days, Governor Andrew Cuomo threw the New York City restaurant industry the proverbial bone on September 9, 2020.
With an original return of indoor dining slated for July 6, the Governor announced that NYC restaurants will be able to reopen for indoor dining on September 30. de Blasio and Cuomo postponed reopening restaurants for indoor dining in early July as other states across the country reported growing outbreaks. The long-anticipated go-ahead for limited indoor dining in the five boroughs end a frustrating Summer ’20 waiting period.
The move came as the result of the consistent advocating of the NYC Hospitality Alliance and the New York State Restaurant Association. The piece began to fall into place when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced a similar opening for Garden State restaurants last Friday. That of course meant that New York City residents could simply drive through one of the tunnels to New Jersey to dine.
That drew both the ire of and litigation from several groups of restaurateurs. The frustration of being ignored lead to a late August, by more than 300 New York City restauranteurs filed a class-action lawsuit against Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio seeking $2 billion in damages.
Another group of Staten Island restauranteurs also recently filed suits. “For the last six months, it’s been very hard for everyone in the diner business, in the restaurant business. Especially for us,” said John Thanosopolous, who owns the Atlantic Diner in Richmond Hill.
“This is the knockout punch for us. This is the lawsuit. We didn’t want to do this. This is not us. We are workers,” said Rob De Luca, who owns De Luca’s Italian Restaurant in Staten Island.
“While reduced occupancy indoor dining will not save our industry and we’ll need significant ongoing support from all levels of government, this is an important start,” noted Andrew Rigie of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “We will continue to work with his office on clarifying all the details for a safe opening.”
“The New York City restaurant industry has been financially devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a safe return to indoor dining is critical to help save these vital small businesses and jobs,” Rigie continued. “We’re thankful to Governor Cuomo for announcing a return to indoor dining with a blueprint for future expansion. Restaurants are essential to New York’s economic and social fabric, and indoor dining is a key component to the industry’s recovery.”
The Cuomo plan for reopening includes a number of new protocols. Restaurants, which have been staying afloat over the summer through takeout and outdoor dining services, will be required to take customers’ temperatures at the door, enforce mask wearing and social distancing rules with space tables six feet apart and offer COVID-19 protections like PPE for employees. They also must close at midnight and can’t offer seats at a bar but can still serve alcohol to tables.
Aside from outdoor dining and takeout, the city’s restaurants and bars have been closed since mid-March as New Yorkers sheltered in place to prevent further spread of the coronavirus tearing through its hospitals. In recent weeks, the governor has allowed the city’s malls, gyms and museums to reopen with limited capacity. But held back on reopening restaurants for indoor dining services, even though other parts of the state were allowed to serve customers inside at 50% capacity.
Cuomo seemingly used the reopening issue and used restaurants as a political hostage to continue his battle with the de Blasio administration. He repeatedly criticized city officials for not enforcing social distancing rules for outdoor dining services, citing that as part of the reason for the delay. Last week, he called on the New York Police Department and the New York State Restaurant Association, which has pushed for indoor dining in the city, to create a plan or a task force that would effectively allow restaurants to reopen while enforcing the governor’s rules.
“I understand the economic pressure they’ve been under. A restaurant is not just the restaurant owner, a restaurant is the kitchen staff, the wait staff, there’s a whole industry around restaurants,” he said.
Cuomo estimated that 10,000 establishments will need to be inspected to ensure they’re following the state’s Covid-19 health precautions. The state plans to expand its current task force, which includes the State Liquor Authority. New York City will also provide an additional 400 inspectors to work alongside the task force, he said.
The governor warned, however, that even with increased enforcement, everyday New Yorkers will be held responsible for aiding the state’s effort. Restaurants will be required to post a phone number customers can call or text to report violations to the task force, he said.
“I believe in New Yorkers’ ability to do the right thing. That’s not blind faith,” Cuomo said. “New Yorkers I think are more informed about Covid than anyone in the country.”
New York has reported an infection rate below 1% for 33 straight days — well below the 5% goal recommended by the World Health Organization for reopening. Cuomo has warned, however, that the state is now in a “post-Labor Day phase” where the flu season threatens to complicate its Covid-19 response.
If reopening indoor dining goes well, and there’s not a significant increase in the state’s infection rate, New York City restaurants could be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, he said, adding that the state will make that decision by Nov. 1.
Compliance with health standards — a sticking point for Cuomo as calls for reopening dining rooms grew — will be partly be enforced by asking city dwellers to report capacity violations by phone or text. “New Yorkers themselves will help with compliance,” Cuomo said. “New Yorkers will keep New Yorkers safe.”
That compliance will also be enforced by an existing State Police and State Liquor Authority task force, as well as 400 city code enforcement officers, Cuomo said. He said people can anonymously report violation by calling 833-208-4160 or texting “VIOLATION” to 855-904-5036.
“If there is a spike in the infection rate, then we can always hit the emergency pause button. We can do that at any time,” Cuomo said.
In yet another confirmation that the City and State are not on the same page, the Governor’s announcement came just hours of Mayor Bill de Blasio saying he expected a decision to be made as soon as this week. The city also will “reassess” indoor dining if its positive rate reaches above 2 percent, according to the statement — a standard not outlined in Cuomo’s announcement.
“Science will guide our decision-making as we continue to monitor progress and health care indicators over the next three weeks to ensure a safe reopening,” de Blasio said. “This may not look like the indoor dining that we all know and love, but it is progress for restaurant workers and all New Yorkers.”
The standards also require restaurants to get contact information from at least one person at a table — a mayor’s office release stated that will go to the city’s Test + Trace program.
What seems to be missing as the industry get set to reopen is any sort of gratitude from either the Cuomo or de Blasio administrations to the City’s restaurant community. There are countless stories of restaurants throughout the five boroughs who came while their businesses were forced to close, they took it upon themselves without any compensations to feed first responders at local hospitals.