From beloved dim sum spots, to oyster bars, to Michelin-starred establishments, to trendy pizza places, the restaurant closures in New York City keep racking up. And it’s not going to end soon. More than 60 percent of restaurants in New York State believe it’s “likely” to “somewhat likely” they’ll close by 2021, according to a survey of 1,042 restaurants just released by the New York Restaurant Association.
The restaurants keeping closure at bay for the time being are doing it with a mix of takeout and outdoor dining. The problem they face is that as summer turns to fall, al fresco becomes prohibitive and the city has not put forward a plan to restart serving indoors. As business owners clamor for operational answers and financial lifelines, it’s increasingly clear that neither will arrive. Instead, they’re faced with confounding failures on every level.
The first place restaurants are looking for answers is local government. They’ve pressured Mayor Bill de Blasio for a timeline to start serving customers indoors again. He’s remained hard to pin down on that question. Last Wednesday, during his daily press conference, he said that he’d give restaurants an answer in September. However, that answer may be that instead of a timeline, restaurants will get the hard reality that he’s unwilling to reopen until there’s a vaccine.
On the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo chimed in Thursday that he’s eager to resume business, but doesn’t have a plan to announce either. “I want to open the restaurants in New York City. I don’t know how we’re going to do the compliance and by the way, I am open to any suggestions,” Cuomo during his press briefing. “Our rules and guidance on reopening is only as good as the compliance and the enforcement.”
Compliance has been an issue in the city. While many restaurants have worked to implement social distancing measures and mask wearing, others have tried to skirt the rules—or just allowed customers to openly flout them. Some have said they don’t think it’s fair that they should be enforcing these rules in the first place.
With losses mounting restaurateurs are turning to the courts for relief, too. In late August, a group of more than 300 restaurants filed a $2 billion class action lawsuit against the city to recover damages related to the city’s indoor dining ban.
Though the plaintiffs probably don’t want to hear it, the ban was necessary to bring down the Covid-19 infection rate in the city as it became the virus’s global epicenter in the spring. Cuomo and de Blasio are rightly skittish to reopen restaurants and bars, especially after places like California, Texas and Florida, all had to backtrack on their reopenings because of a subsequent surge in cases.
There’s a marked difference between the safety of dining indoor and out. The scientific community is coalescing around the reality that transmission of the virus is airborne. And thus people staying inside and breathing the same air for an extended period of time can increase the spread the disease. It has left a cold-weather city like New York without a viable plan for in-person dining as the weather turns. In San Francisco, one restaurant has turned to geodesic domes that enclose one table to serve outside. Meanwhile, the Chicago’s city government is looking at similar ideas to help the industry survive the cold. Could these bubble-like pods save the industry?
One of the world’s leading Covid-19 researchers thinks not. “I would not feel safe in such enclosures, as they don’t seem to have any ventilation,” Lidia Morawska, a professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia told Robb Report. “Unless they are used for families—or people from the same households—to isolate them from others. But a restaurant would not be able to ‘police’ who shares the enclosures. They would not be safe for groups of friends or colleagues.”
Shutting down indoor dining is a sacrifice restaurants need to make for the greater health of the society, but that falls on deaf ears to restaurateurs when government seems unwilling to make anyone—from landlords to financial institutions to the government itself—share in that sacrifice, too.
The problem for de Blasio and Cuomo is that this is not a problem they can solve on the local level. Reopening the economy required a larger effort to contain the disease first and then proceed from there. We as a nation largely tried to skip the first step. Countries that attacked containment head-on have returned to daily life more than America has. When Denmark shut down its restaurants, it didn’t leave those businesses and workers to wither. Rasmus Kofoed of Michelin three-star Geranium in Copenhagen told Robb Report that that government paid 75 percent of his employees’ salaries during shutdown as well as an undisclosed amount of his rent.
That large-scale, concerted effort to stop the virus—and support the economy while it did—paid dividends in Denmark. That’s not how the American economy and government works.
In the US, we couldn’t get out of our own way. Even the Paycheck Protection Program, which gave a modest lifeline to businesses for a short time, pointed to how ill-equipped America’s levers of power were to deal with a large-scale aid package. The failures came partially from an insistence that private enterprise always knows best and the functions of state must be funneled through non-governmental hands. PPP should have been grants given directly to small businesses, cutting out any sort of middleman. Instead it required money to pass through a funhouse hall of mirrors—in the form of private banks administering the loans with little guidance from the federal government—before it could actually get to people who needed it. Because of the convoluted need to hand responsibility for administering the program over to private banks, already struggling restaurants had to rack up billable hours with accountants to access the forgivable loans.
Those PPP funds were meant to pretty much get restaurants through July and now that summer has come and gone, that one bit of outside aid restaurants received has dried up. The current torpor of congress—which let increased unemployment benefits lapse without much effort—doesn’t suggest more money is coming. And indoor dining is no safer now than when the city scrapped its July reopening plans, because nothing about the actual behavior of the virus itself has changed.
So where does that leave Cuomo, de Blasio and restaurateurs? In all likelihood waiting on a vaccine to get New York restaurants back to normal. Essentially, hoping someone, somewhere else can create a silver bullet to solve a problem we seem little inclined or able to solve ourselves.