NYC Restaurants Forced To 'Sit And Wait For The Whim Of The Mayor And The Governor'
As more areas of New York City face state-imposed restrictions, the looming threat of a second full shutdown remains front of mind for the battered hospitality industry in the city.
Lack of clarity about what rules could be ahead — and no indication of funding support — means many of these businesses are now even closer to the brink.
“We wish there was more clean-cut guidance,” said Vincent Mauriello, managing partner and director of operations at Gerber Group, which operates several restaurants and bars throughout Manhattan. “It would really stink to get a briefing tomorrow and find out we have to shut down the next day. We all have to play by the rules and do what the government tells us, but there is something to be said about adults making their own decisions. It’s just a bit of a mess right now.”
Restaurants have been ordering food in lesser quantities, he said, as a way to mitigate the loss if greater restrictions and shutdowns are imposed.
“It’s hard to put a number on it,” Mauriello said. "But even if you’re ordering for two days, if you get shut down, the food in our refrigerator that we’ve already paid for is going to spoil.”
Monday morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved several areas of the city into orange and yellow zones, including Washington Heights in Manhattan and Pleasant Plains, Annandale, Great Kills and Bay Terrace in Staten Island, where positivity rates are north of 4% in some instances.
All gyms, indoor dining and personal care services in ZIP codes designated orange zones must close. Outdoor dining can continue but there is a cap at four people per table.
Cuomo already mandated restaurants, gyms and residential gatherings shut down after 10 p.m. earlier this month, and de Blasio closed the city’s public schools to in-person learning last Wednesday after the city hit the 3% average weekly infection rate threshold, saying it was “only a matter of time” before indoor dining and gyms would be shut down, too.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations across the state continue to increase, Cuomo said in his press conference Monday, and the state has begun to build a temporary hospital on Staten Island, the borough with the highest overall rate of infections. The hospitalization rate in New York City is one of the lowest in the state, at 1.41 per 100,000 people, according to the state Department of Health.
It is unclear, however, what rate would prompt a state-mandated halt to indoor dining in the city. De Blasio initially said that if the city rose above 2%, he would force restaurants to stop serving indoors, but the city has been over that for the past two weeks.
Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality has pre-emptively closed indoor and outdoor dining at its locations citing health and safety reasons. Other business owners are still operating, but many say this has left them in a state of limbo as they remain open, grapple with school closures and anticipate the imminent shutdown of their businesses.
Alexandra Charpentier, who owns an all-women-winemaker wine bar Winemak’her along Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said that she is juggling helping to school her 10-year-old son while keeping her business alive, knowing that it will likely be forced to close in the next two to three weeks.
“I am worried about the city shutdown,” she said. “I am from France and in France, everything is shut down right now.”
Since dining has resumed, she has been able to pay her bills. She’s invested in making her restaurant safe and comfortable for customers in the cold months, she said. Once she is forced to close, she will try to negotiate her rent while her business bears the storm.
On top of all of that, she takes her son to work with her to ensure he does his schoolwork.
“It’s complicated for him because he has to sit down there all day, be very quiet,” she said. “Every day … he doesn’t usually finish until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., and then he goes home. It’s super complicated, I am stressed about that … and children feel everything that their parents feel, so it’s stressful.
In anticipation of a second shutdown, industry lobby groups have insisted that indoor dining is not the main cause of spread and that it should not bear the brunt of an increase in the citywide infection rate.
“While public health and safety must be paramount, we have not seen contact tracing data indicating that highly regulated indoor dining causes the recent infections,” NYC Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie said in a statement. “Thus struggling small business owners and their employees should not be the left holding the bag as a default reaction without being justly compensated.”
But there have been multiple studies that have found a correlation between those who participate in indoor dining and those who contract the coronavirus, including one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September and one from Stanford and Northwestern universities earlier this month.
Rigie and the restaurateurs Bisnow spoke to insist that the government must provide financial support if it is to restrict dining again, but the chances of swift funding are dwindling. Federal lawmakers left for Thanksgiving recess without any form of deal on a relief package.
The Paycheck Protection Program, which many small businesses used to keep afloat, stopped accepting applications back in August. Around 12 million people could lose enhanced unemployment insurance by the end of the year if the government doesn’t act because of deadlines set in the last relief bill, The Washington Post reports. A total of 4.4 million people have already stopped receiving funds.
With a state budget revenue shortfall of $59B and massive budget holes left from New York’s first battle with the virus in April and May, there is little chance of reprieve from the city and state. Sources said any further restrictions will force more restaurants over the edge.
“Decisions are being made very quickly. It’s fine to follow science and keep people safe, but why can’t we make plans to help employees too?” said Jeffrey Bank, the CEO of Alicart Restaurant Group, which owns restaurants Carmine's and Virgil's BBQ. “You released eight weeks of PPP, we are now in week 36. If we keep closing restaurants, why not help them?”
Bank said his restaurants are open right now, per state guidelines, and there is almost nothing he can do to prepare for what could be ahead.
“I just sit and wait for the whim of the mayor and the governor,” he said. “I’m just frustrated, I want my staff to be safe, but I want them to have jobs. I don’t know why we can’t do both.”
Nearly 90% of restaurants citywide paid partial or no rent last month, per the NYC Hospitality Alliance. At least two-thirds of New York’s restaurants were on track to close by the end of 2020 per a New York State Restaurant Association survey released back in September.
“We’ll adapt very quickly. If we need to shut down, we will shut down and comply,” said Joseph Ferrara, a principal at BFC Partners. His firm is the developer behind Empire Outlets, a new outlet mall on the Staten Island waterfront.
He said he can rely on information from elected officials and act accordingly. At this stage, the firm is moving ahead with the opening of a new food and beverage deck at the center and is planning socially distanced tree lighting ceremonies next month.
“We roll with the punches, we’ll take the time to re-evaluate … If we have to close retail, we’ll close retail. It’s not about the dollars, it’s about keeping people alive,” Ferrara said. “I wish we had more clarity, but we just don’t.”