It began with a slow trickle last week, when some of the heavyweights of the dining industry—Eric Ripert, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and Daniel Boulud—announced they would be closing their restaurants for an indeterminate amount of time. The legendary Gotham Bar & Grill went one step further, shutting forever after 36 years and countless accolades. It couldn’t help but feel ominous. As The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells tweeted, “What you’re seeing is long time operators who survived 9/11 and multiple market crashes realizing this time is different.”
As images of packed bars and restaurants still circulated social media on Friday and Saturday, it was clear the call for social distancing to help stop the spread of Covid-19 wasn’t enough. And for restaurant owners, it also began to feel untenable to ask their staffs to keep gathering in large groups each day. On Saturday, René Redzepi, a chef many in the food world have taken cues from for a decade, released an emotional video on Instagram saying he would close Noma for the foreseeable future as well.
To that point, many restaurants had been using their social media to assure customers they were taking the utmost precautions to sanitize their restaurants to make them safe to dine in. However, the tide began to turn Saturday. Alex Stupak announced he’d close Empellon, David Chang shuttered his Momofuku restaurants around the country, José Andrés transitioned some of his restaurants to provide affordable takeout meals, and Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg shut down and then told others the only responsible thing to do was for them to follow suit. By late Sunday Alinea, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants and more closed down, too.
Each closure came with noticeable distress from the chefs and restaurateurs. And it’s easy to see why. The day before Alinea took that step, co-owner Nick Kokonas revealed through a Medium post what his group of Chicago restaurants—that includes Next and The Aviary among others—may close because of Covid-19. “Modeling this all took some time, but we’ve estimated losses of between $170,000 and $900,000 monthly for our restaurant group, depending on various scenarios,” he wrote.
Eventually, government officials started stepping in, realizing that telling restaurants to “operate at 50 percent capacity” as New York City had done (with no success enforcing it) simply wasn’t going to cut it. All of France’s restaurants were barred from operating; LA Mayor Eric Garcetti mandated bars and dine-in restaurants close; Illinois Governor JB Pritzker closed all bars and restaurants across the state through at least March 30; and, after an outcry, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration did the same in New York City mandating restaurants could be takeout and delivery-only starting Tuesday. Many municipalities and states have not yet taken this step, but a wave could be coming.
It’s hard to predict the toll the closures will take on the industry. Larger restaurants groups may be able to weather this pandemic long enough to come back after it subsides. But for many independent restaurants, already operating on slim margins in a difficult business, their doors may never reopen.