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‘Worse Times Just Started’: Businesses In NYC’s New COVID Cluster React To Fresh Restrictions

A week after New York City restaurants were allowed to reopen for indoor dining, some will now have to limit their capacity, scuttle their plans for indoor seating and revert to takeout-only again after a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus in parts of the city. 

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Some New York City restaurants will have to close their doors for the second time amid coronavirus outbreaks in Brooklyn and Queens.

In an attempt to curb the spread of the virus in neighborhoods where infection rates have spiked, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a mandate earlier this week that requires businesses and schools in certain areas of Brooklyn and Queens with coronavirus clusters to temporarily shut down and for those in the surrounding areas to limit their operations. 

Restaurants inside the confines of these boundaries — already pummeled by months of stymied business prompted by the pandemic — face yet another daunting hurdle. 

“I thought everything would be better after this crazy eight to nine months,” Yasin Cabuk, the owner of BlackSea Fish & Grill in Rego Park, told Bisnow. “But I guess worse times just started.” 

The rapid closure of indoor dining will likely affect finances and the recovery the restaurant has made immediately. 

Cabuk said sales have gone up a lot in the past week since indoor dining at 25% was allowed to resume across all five boroughs, a part of the city’s reopening plan that was slated for the beginning of July, but only went into effect on Sept. 30. Now, the restaurant has to roll back a measure that provided some relief. 

Similarly, the city's recovery may be delayed as neighborhoods that make up a significant portion of the entire population of the city must slow down once again. 

While the areas affected only total nine of New York City’s 146 ZIP codes, Mayor Bill de Blasio says, the ZIP codes that have seen an uptick in coronavirus cases and an infection rate of over 3% for the past few consecutive weeks are some of the most densely populated areas of these outer boroughs — 19.1% of Brooklyn’s population live in the affected ZIP codes, or more than 493,000 people, according to an analysis by the Bklyner. Another 126,000 people live in the ZIP codes in Queens now facing restriction.

Brooklyn and Queens' economies have weathered the pandemic better than Manhattan — which has seen an unprecedented decline in population since the onset of the coronavirus — with some predicting that former Manhattanites would continue to migrate to the more spacious residential areas of the outer boroughs.

Rents in these areas have remained more stable than the rents in Manhattan, which have plummeted since March as many left the city. Now, outbreaks will affect the areas that have seen relative stability coming out of the city's first wave. 

Under the state’s new mandate, which is currently in effect for at least 14 days, businesses in parts of Gravesend, Borough Park, Midwood, Far Rockaway and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn as well as parts of Kew Gardens in Queens, must shut down. These areas — home to clusters of high infection rates — have been dubbed “red areas.” 

“In New York, statewide, we are doing very well on the numbers. We have what I call a COVID cluster problem,” Cuomo said in a press conference Tuesday. “But a cluster problem is serious because a cluster problem can grow.” 

In these areas, only essential businesses are allowed to remain open and restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery, Cuomo said. Schools are closed in these areas as well and places of worship are limited to 25% capacity. 

Cuomo is also limiting businesses in areas surrounding the cluster — dubbed “orange” and “yellow” zones — such as parts of Rego Park in Queens as well as Sheepshead Bay and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. 

In “orange” areas, indoor dining isn't allowed and seating is limited to four people per table. In “yellow,” areas, at most four people are allowed at a table for indoor and outdoor dining. 

Restaurant workers expressed fear and frustration over the new guidelines, even at businesses that are still allowed to seat some customers.

Brigitte Brauer, a waitress at Village Diner, located in a part of Kew Gardens that is in the yellow zone, said she is scared of losing her job again if the outbreak spreads. 

“We are afraid it is going to get worse,” she said. “We have three servers here, they are going to have no job.” 

Brauer said she doesn't see how this can meaningfully stop the spread because of how close the boundaries are. 

“My feeling is I don’t think it’s fair to have these borders,” she said. “People from the red zone are just going to walk on over to the other areas." 

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BlackSea Fish and Grill in Rego Park, Queens

Brauer and her co-workers were some of the thousands of service workers who remained out of work for months this spring. Those in the business community fear that the shutdown will further damage the boroughs’ economic recovery. 

“To shut down almost all of south Brooklyn and punish small businesses that have reopened safely will be an overwhelming setback to the borough’s economic recovery,” Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers said in a statement. 

Peers encouraged residents to follow health guidelines: hand-washing, socially distancing and wearing a mask.

“This is about common sense compliance and enforcement,” he said. 

New York City Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie said the industry agrees with containing the virus but that restaurateurs and those that work in restaurants need all of the support they can get. 

“The situation in certain Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods is overwhelmingly unfortunate,” Rigie said in a statement to Bisnow. “The Governor deliberately made clear that the spike in cases in cluster communities is not attributed to restaurants or small businesses.”

An August survey showed that without significant government aid, 63% of restaurants statewide could shutter permanently by the end of this year. 

Rigie, along with other restaurant trade groups at the state and national level, have been calling on the federal government to pass a house bill introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) that would create a $120B fund to help restaurants weather the coronavirus storm. This could be passed during the current session. 

Cabuk said that so far, the government has not been able to help, so he is hoping the neighborhood will come out to eat food and support the local restaurant. 

“We have bills to pay, rent to pay and coworkers to pay, and they have families they need to bring home food to,” he said.