Despite Concerns, NYC Reopens Indoor Dining Early

New York City opens dining rooms earlier than scheduled, but tensions are still high. Restaurants need the money, but is it safe to open yet? (Two service industry workers wear masks inside a restaurant kitchen)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced that New York City restaurants can resume indoor dining this weekend, at 25% capacity, after originally slating them to open on Sunday. They will still operate with a 10 p.m. curfew. The subtle change allows restaurants to take advantage of busy holiday weekend revenue ahead of Valentine’s Day. What it doesn’t do, however, is address the safety concerns surrounding indoor dining, which we covered last week.

Read more: The Rise of Indoor Dining Causes Tension Between Restaurants and Customers

The move is a response to declining numbers of new Covid-19 cases and Covid-19-related hospitalizations in the city. In a press conference the Governor said, "We respond to the data, we respond to the facts that we face today.” Mr. Cuomo asserted again that restaurant regulations will evolve with the most recent Covid-19 figures. “The facts may change tomorrow and then we will change with the facts…but the numbers are down now."

Indoor dining was initially shut down in March, as numbers surged throughout the city. Dining rooms were re-opened in September, but then shut again in December as Covid-19 cases spiked after Thanksgiving.

Elsewhere in New York, restaurants operate at 50% capacity. New York City operators have long been critical of the governor’s reopening strategy and have been pushing to join the rest of the state at 50% occupancy. For them, it’s a matter of financial necessity. Despite the Centers for Disease Control still listing indoor dining as a high-risk scenario, restaurant owners are desperate to keep their doors open.

Read more: NY Restaurant Workers now Eligible for Covid-19 Vaccine, Other States to Follow

74 New York City restaurants have filed an emergency motion to allow them to reopen at half capacity, the latest in a string of lawsuits, including a $2 billion class-action lawsuit and a $500 million class action lawsuit that was dismissed in November. Kenneth Belkin, the attorney hired to represent the restaurants, told Eater, “These businesses simply cannot survive at that capacity. They have already incurred enormous losses and expenses to retrofit and make their businesses safe. The costs of reopening and only being able to file [sic] seats to 25 percent makes it not even worth opening and I feel safe to say that this applies to all eateries in NYC.”  

Restaurant workers are now faced with an impossible decision: go back to work in a high-risk environment or struggle for unemployment. There is a strong ethical argument against indoor dining. Namely, it puts some of the city’s most vulnerable at risk of infection. Conscientious customers are encouraging others to safely support their favorite venues with take-out orders, gift card purchases and cash tips.

But ultimately, nothing is as effective (or necessary) as a government stimulus for independent restaurants. Since the start of the pandemic, over 2.4 million service industry jobs have been lost, and over 110,000 restaurants and bars have permanently closed. Thankfully, two relief packages are in the works.

Read more: The Two Relief Funds You Need to Know About

Last week, the U.S. Senate voted to include ‘The Restaurant Rescue Plan’, a dedicated grant relief program of $25 billion, within the national Covid-19 relief package known as the ‘American Rescue Plan’. The American Rescue Plan still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The RESTAURANTS Act was also reintroduced to Congress last Friday. If passed, it would create a $120 billion fund for foodservice businesses with less than 20 units.

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