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Uncertainty Over Winter Dining Is A Dark Cloud Hanging Over NYC Restaurants

Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo's declaration that indoor dining in New York City can resume Sept. 30, restaurant owners across New York City say they have no way to plan for the coming winter because the current policies are unclear or they don't trust that Cuomo or Mayor Bill de Blasio will stick to them. 

With summer unofficially over, the prospect of a New York winter just months away has blown uncertainty and fear toward the New York City restaurant industry, which has been in a dire crisis since the city shut down in March. Among other issues, restaurant owners said there is a lack of clarity, from both the state and the city, around what would even be considered outdoor dining in the winter months.

Street dining on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn

“Government is not giving you anything to really go off and play the game off of,” said Brian Torressen, who owns Brewski’s Bar and Grill in the Bronx neighborhood of Throggs Neck. “So, you can go through all this time and put deposits down on tents and heaters or find ways to adapt your business — have the machinery installed, the heaters installed — and then the next thing you know, after you invest all this money, time and effort, you come to find that's actually not outdoor dining after all.”

Restaurants owners also say that indoor dining, even with some restrictions lifted, is complicated. Trade associations say that the 25% occupancy that will be permitted in two weeks can't save the restaurant industry, but it is a hopeful move forward. 

“Pre-pandemic, it was extraordinarily difficult to survive as a restaurant in New York City when you had 100% occupancy, so the question is not whether or not 25% occupancy is going to save the restaurant industry,” New York City Hospitality Alliance CEO Andrew Rigie said. “It is a first step towards indoor dining with a road map increased to 50% indoor occupancy, hopefully by Nov. 1, should compliance and health metrics stay strong.” 

Out of over 25,000 restaurants that were operating in New York City before the coronavirus pandemic began, approximately 10,000 have used outdoor dining this summer, 6,000 of which have used the city's street seating permits, Rigie said.

Of the owners of nine restaurants Bisnow interviewed since Cuomo's announcement, three are hoping to operate outdoor dining through the cold months but six — all in Manhattan — say that they will most likely close down their outdoor operations, regardless of whether de Blasio extends their ability to do so.

For restaurant owners who have been on the brink after being cash-strapped for seven months, 25% indoor capacity long-term is just not enough, even if outdoor dining were allowed to continue, they said.

But expanded indoor dining may present a conundrum for a city still traumatized by the virus’s deadly rampage this winter: A July Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that dining inside a restaurant was the only activity that had any statistically significant association with increased risk for contracting the coronavirus.

In late spring and early summer, highly populated cities that lifted lockdown restrictions on restaurants and bars too soon, like Texas, Florida and Arizona, saw spikes in cases and deaths in the weeks that followed.

New York, which has gone from the global epicenter to a state with one of the lowest infection rates in the country, faces similar risks when restaurants reopen their doors. So do the restaurant owners who say they have been told to go, then stop, at their own expense, at several points throughout the reopening process.

“There are no hard-and-fast rules, but I think what New York City is doing is what is recommended,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. “You don't go from zero to 100, you monitor it.”

The outdoor beer garden at Brewski's Bar and Grill in the Bronx's Throggs Neck neighborhood.

At Brewski’s Bar and Grill, just miles from the border of Westchester in a neighborhood that juts into the Long Island Sound, indoor dining has been opened since July. Torressen was born and raised in the Throggs Neck neighborhood and has owned the bar with his father since 2012. The inside of Brewski’s, at pre-pandemic capacity, seats 120 guests in addition to the outside beer garden lined with picnic tables standing 6 feet apart, he said. 

Now, Torrensen said he is trying to adequately prepare for cold weather while navigating a situation that seems to be changing weekly.

“How do you adapt and convert that space into something tolerable? How do you create an enjoyable experience for your customers so they’re not freezing their butts off outside before dealing with dealing with the elements? How do you adapt this current business model of outdoor dining to a harsh New York winter?” he asked. “That's definitely the million-dollar question right now for everybody.” 

The difficult part of planning, Torrensen said, is that policy thus far has not been clear as to what outdoor dining looks like. Right now, he isn't sure if outdoor structures used to better the customer experience in the cold months — such as a tent or a rooftop bar with retractable walls — would be allowed. 

The demand for outdoor heating has surged in preparation. One New Jersey facility services company said it saw a 75% increase in demand for heaters this summer as companies, including restaurants, prepare to continue their outdoor services into the fall and winter. 

Despite uncertainty, Torrensen said he has taken the risk and made investments in cold weather preparations.  

“You can't hit a home run unless you swing the bat,” he said. “You can't be afraid to be in the game … Is the risk worth taking? The way we felt about this from day one is that we don't owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our staff and our community to take the risk.” 

Patsy's Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant on West 74th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan

Indoor dining beyond 25% capacity will be hard for most restaurants even if the state allows it, because the tables still have to be 6 feet apart.

Brewski’s usually has 50 people cozied up to its bar. Now, it can’t have any.

Alexandra Charpentier has owned the all-women-winemaker wine bar Winemak’her along Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for two years. The Avignon, France, native's bar sits next to a number of trendy bars and restaurants blocks away from Prospect Park.

While she is making preparations to welcome customers back inside — such as setting up plexiglass as well as a temperature check and contact tracing station — indoor space will only fit 10 people at 25% capacity.

Charpentier said she has bought a canopy tent for the sidewalk in front of her bar and is hopeful that the city will extend outdoor dining past the current Oct. 31 deadline. In France, terrace dining is common, and she has found similar success with it in Brooklyn, she said. 

“We had a very good experience with the outdoor dining,” she said. “It's such a crazy time ... We would like to have it here as long as possible.”

But not everyone plans to try. Several Manhattan-based restaurants Bisnow spoke to this week said they would not be able to continue outdoor dining past October.

The Gerber Group's restaurant Irvington in the Flatiron District of Manhattan

Patsy’s Pizzeria on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is currently bringing in 20% to 25% of its typical profits with outdoor seating and takeout combined, manager Stephan Katchis said, adding it will most likely stop serving the handful of dining when the weather gets cold.

The Gerber Group, which owns and operates Manhattan restaurants and bars The Crown, The Campbell, Mr. Purple and Irvington, said that outdoor dining past October would be difficult. The type of heating that restaurants can use is limited — heating lamps, for example, aren't permitted.

“You’re currently allowed to use hardwire natural gas,” Rigie said. “That's an expensive and time-consuming installation.”

Heating only goes so far, Gerber Group Managing Partner Vincent Mauriello said. The heating currently allowed would only heat a very small portion of an outdoor dining space, and customers would most likely still be cold. 

“The only sure way to extend outdoor dining is if you could extend the summer or fall weather,” Mauriello said. “It’s not the climate where you can set up the patio every day.”  

Mauriello said he is hoping that October’s outdoor dining, combined with the 25% capacity, will provide some relief from the beating that many restaurants have taken since March.

Last month, the New York State Restaurant Association surveyed 1,042 restaurants across the state. Nearly two-thirds said without monetary assistance, they wouldn't survive past 2020 and 54.8% of those that would close said they wouldn't even make it through November.

Trade groups at the local, state and national level have been lobbying lawmakers at the federal level to create a fund specifically for restaurants in the way that Congress appropriated a package to airlines in the first months of the coronavirus. A $120B package, dubbed the RESTAURANTS Act, was introduced to the House by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) this summer and could be passed during the current legislative session.

Restaurants say this, or getting back to a fuller capacity, is the only way to ensure the safety of an industry teetering on the edge and bracing for another cold, pandemic, New York winter. 

When asked if they believe their restaurants will make it through the winter without extended indoor dining or outdoor dining, many said they had no idea. 

“I think that is an incredibly scary thing for me to think about,” Mauriello said. “It’s going to be extremely difficult for restaurants to make a profit.”