New York City’s restaurants resumed indoor dining on Wednesday after months of crippling closures but are only allowed to serve 25 percent of their normal capacity, which means none will come close to breaking even.
It is the latest in a string of blows for the industry which has been left ‘in the dark’ by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio since they were suddenly forced closed in March. Cuomo finally announced on September 9 that he would allow indoor dining to resume on September 30.
It came after months of pleas for information from restaurant owners about when they would be able to welcome patrons back inside. With the sudden announcement, they scrambled to organize their staffs and spaces.
Last week, Mayor de Blasio also announced that he would extend outdoor dining – which had been happening since June – indefinitely. He’d previously said that it would end in November.
On the surface, both announcements were good news for the industry. But the reality for operators now is a whole new set of challenges.
The 25 percent capacity limit drastically reduces the amount of money restaurants – many of which struggled to turn a profit when packed – can make.
Many are urging Cuomo to allow them to start at 50 percent on October 15 and 75 percent on November and 100 percent by Thanksgiving.
Diners inside Keens Steakhouse on Wednesday on the first day of indoor dining in New York City. Restaurants can operate at a 25 percent capacity
Arrows on the floor in Keens to mark one-way walkways for customers and staff in a bed to reduce transmission of COVID-19
Waiter Lenworth Thompson serves lunch to David Zennario, left, and Alex Ecklin at Junior’s, a chain restaurant, on Wednesday
It would fall in line with what the rest of the state has been allowed to do since June. To continue offering outdoor dining through New York’s frigid winters, outdoor heaters are essential.
But with little to no notice that they’d need them, restaurants are struggling to gain the appropriate heaters – which have to be approved by the FDNY – or the permits they need to use them, which could take months. On top of that, they need to source the gas they’d need to keep them functioning.
On Wednesday, some restaurants were able to open their doors for the first time since March 16.
Chef Daniel Boulud, of the famous Daniel restaurant on the Upper East Side, told DailyMail.com he was excited to finally welcome diners back for dinner but that it was not without its challenges.
‘It’s a mix of anxiety and excitement for sure, I am very excited for the staff to be back to work of course.
‘I may see the 25 percent lasting longer than we thought though because of resurgence in different countries [of lockdowns],’ he said.
Boulud said it was ‘impossible’ to run a business with such a limited capacity.
‘All my life, I have spent it cooking in fine dining restaurants and in restaurants where, of course, we put a lot of effort, energy and creativity in to provide the best food and service. Our entire pyramid collapsed,’ he said.
Daniel – where prices for soup start at $35 – is able to reopen because, as Boulud says, they were doing ‘financially very well’ before the pandemic.
‘Thank god we were financially very well before COVID, so we have been able to reopen and bring back a lot of staff but it is very, very frightening to know so many little businesses had to close,’ he said.
Reservations at Daniel started last Friday and filled up quickly, he said. Now, there is a wait list.
Customers, he said, will be treated to a special experience on Wednesday night as staff dress up and offer a ‘different’ type of service than before. They will also have to follow strict rules, like two hour time slots and wearing their masks when not eating or drinking.
‘At 25 percent, we need to turn the table at least once. If you come at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock, it’s obvious – you can stay.
‘But you cannot stay too late because we have to keep the staff late and we have an obligation to close at a certain time. It will make us very conscious. The customer has to help.
‘It’s the same for every one of my colleagues an the industry. The customer has to understand that.
‘If you want to buy the table for four hours? Fine. The customer can pay double,’ he said.
Diners inside Sarabeth’s, a well-known chain in Manhattan, on Wednesday at lunchtime for the first time in months
There were plexiglass screens separating tables at Sarabeth’s on Wednesday afternoon as staff watched on wearing masks
Two women eat lunch indoors at Dallas BBQ in Chelsea, one of the thousands of restaurants that reopened for indoor dining on Wednesday
Diners inside Rosa Mexicano on Wednesday on the Upper West Side. Many of the table were marked as unavailable with large bowls due to the capacity limit
Chefs inside Il Gattopardo restaurant in midtown preparing an appetizer on the first day of indoor dining
A waitress tends to a table at Dallas BBQ in Chelsea as New York City restaurants reopen for dining limited to 25 percent seating capacity
Fox Hospitality Group also took diners in three of its restaurants on Wednesday.
Group owner Mark Fox told DailyMail.com: ‘We’ve had a busy lunch, tables have been full guests are definitely delighted to sit inside again, it’s definitely helpful. If we could increase capacity that would move things along.’
Sant Ambroes in SoHo and the West Village also welcomed diners back indoors. A manager at the SoHo location, who preferred not to be named, said most diners were still choosing to sit outside but that it had been a ‘great experience for everybody’ finally bringing people back to dining rooms.
Rob Mahon, owner of Toro Loco, said he’d welcomed back diners inside. Mandatory temperature checks and QR code menus are in place.
‘We will have to increase our team at busy times however I don’t see any change in terms of current revenue from now until Christmas,’ he said.
The restaurant had put much of its indoor furniture outside to accommodate outdoor dining. Now, they have to rejig the layout again.
Mahon also said he was not optimistic about outdoor dining with heaters when temperatures in New York City plummet.
‘I don’t see people sitting outside when it’s NYC cold regardless of outdoor heating systems you install,’ he said.
Restaurants in the city have been crying out for additional financial help for months. The PPP payments they were given initially, along with every other type of small business, have dried up.
Joe Smith of Bobby Vans Steakhouse told DailyMail.com for his restaurants to survive they need to be at 100 per cent capacity by November. Even for now 25 per cent ‘isn’t going to cut it’, Smith argues, adding: ‘We need 50 per cent.’
He said: ‘It has been absolutely brutal.
‘Steakhouses are expensive and we serve midtown, Wall Street, business men and women. For seven months we did absolutely nothing – the buildings are deserted, there is no residential custom here, all commercial, so it was really not worth the effort.
‘We opened our restaurant on 54th Street for lunch today – we served around 14 lunches. On a normal day we would serve 120 lunches.’
Smith said he blames the politics playing out between city and state leaders, adding: ‘We could have 25 per cent and people in offices two months ago.
‘It has been so badly handled. Even today the offices are not back, people are not riding the subways, buses. The business isn’t there. They need to stop with the scare tactics.
‘There is a lot of politics and the small businessman is getting caught in the middle.’
Diners at Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side, a famous lunch restaurant known for its sandwiches
Inside Katz’s Deli at lunchtime on Wednesday, the first day of indoor dining in New York City. The restaurant would normally pack tables next to one another
Diners are told to wear masks before they get to their tables and only take them off when they are eating and drinking
A man enjoys one of Katz’s famous cold meat sandwiches on Wednesday at lunchtime
They also say their needs are more individual than others. In New York City, many restaurants rely largely on tourism and office workers – who have all but vanished – for trade.
Only 10 percent of the city’s office workers have returned to work after being given the option to work from home. Tourists are still a long way from returning to the city.
Tavern on the Green and the Boathouse in Central Park both remain closed. A manager who answered the phone there on Wednesday told DailyMail.com it was simply ‘impossible’ to run either restaurant on the current rules.
And after being forced to stay closed for seven months, restaurants in the city – particularly independently owned ones – are ‘on their knees.’
‘To think 25 percent helps at this late stage, four months after the rest of the state, when we pay more per square foot than any other region, after all our PPP funds have been used, even with outdoor seats… we’ll come nowhere close to preventing hundreds, if not thousands, of restaurants from closing.
‘It could have been prevented. That’s the tragedy,’ Fox said.
He is among thousands of restaurant owners who are worried about investing in heaters and gas only to be told that they have to shut down again in the event of a second lockdown.
The challenges are from a financial perspective that if we invest into it and have an extraordinarily cold season, we won’t get any benefit until spring.
‘Secondly, if we invest into it and they revoke the roadway seating, then it’ll all be in vain,’ he said.
Propane gas heaters will only be allowed on sidewalks and electric heaters have to be used on roadways to avoid accidents.
There is the added stress for restaurants that the city may soon start charging them to put tables on the streets.
Ordinarily, they would need to pay for an expensive permit for cafe seating but that has been waived.
Spaced out diners at Rosa Mexicano restaurant on Wednesday
Diners at Sarabeth’s restaurant on Wednesday; New York City restaurants are opening up indoor dining to 25% of their pre-Covid-19 capacity today
Staff at Il Gattopardo restaurant get instructions before service on the first day that restaurants were allowed to start indoor dining since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Manhattan
Some restaurants reported that diners were more eager to sit outside than indoors. The weather remains warm in New York. Above, Serafina on the Lower East Side