Are New York Restaurant Customers Ready to Dine Inside Again?

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Fragrant baskets of grilled kebabs were served on wood tables freshly scrubbed with Lysol.

Diners were offered hand sanitizer and asked to keep their masks on when not eating or drinking. The waiter wore a mask too.

The dining room at Addy’s Barbeque in Astoria, Queens, showed signs of life again after indoor dining returned at limited capacity in New York City on Feb. 12, following a two-month shutdown amid a second wave of the coronavirus.

“At least something is better than nothing,” said Syed Hussain, 54, the restaurant’s owner. “What we were going through was nothing.”

The shutdown, the second time in the past year that the state had barred indoor dining in a city known around the world for its restaurants, was a blow to an industry that has been decimated by the pandemic.

In the few days since indoor dining restarted, customers appeared to be trickling in but usually in modest numbers, and interviews with owners, workers and industry experts suggested that many people were still leery of being inside.

In fact, allowing restaurants to open their doors to patrons at 25 percent capacity is unlikely to be enough to significantly reverse the economic damage that has already been inflicted, industry experts said.

Thousands of New York’s 25,000 restaurants, bars and nightclubs have closed for good. Many others are barely holding on. They are way behind on rent, furloughing or laying off workers and making a fraction of the revenues they produced during normal times.

The restaurant industry, one of the city’s most vital economic pillars and a key to its recovery, once employed 325,000 people. It has shed more than 140,000 jobs.

A survey by the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group, found that 92 percent of restaurants reported that they could not afford to pay their rent in December, up from 80 percent in June.

The second shutdown of indoor dining crippled many restaurants during the holiday season, usually their busiest time, leaving only takeout orders and outdoor dining during freezing temperatures. The rent payment figures for January are likely to be no better.

“We have been the eye of this crisis,” said Andrew Rigie, the alliance’s executive director. “When Covid-19 hit, we were told to socially distance, but restaurants are where we come together to socialize. Restaurants are part of not only the economic foundation but also the social and cultural fabric of New York City.”

Across the nation, restaurants are reeling from pandemic restrictions and a recession. The number of restaurant visits nationwide plummeted by as much as 27 percent in the second quarter of 2020 — the biggest drop since at least the 1970s — compared with the same period the year before, said Darren Seifer, the food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group, a consumer research firm.

By comparison, during the worst of the 2009 economic downturn, restaurant traffic fell just 3 percent.

“It’s been a pretty rough year for the restaurant industry,” Mr. Seifer said. “The downturn was very deep and drastic. It happened all of a sudden.”

In New York City, where many restaurants rely primarily on sit-down dining rather than fast-food takeout, indoor dining was shut down for more than six months at the height of the pandemic. Then it was restricted to 25 percent capacity, while in the rest of the state outside a handful of virus hot spots, 50 percent capacity was allowed.

To help offset these restrictions, the city expanded outdoor dining with a popular program that has allowed 11,000 restaurants to seat diners on sidewalks and streets and in public spaces.

But many restaurant owners, saying that has not been nearly enough to make up for their lost revenue from indoor dining, are pressing for the 25 percent capacity restriction to be increased.

“We would like to see 50 percent soon — as soon as it’s safe — we do need it as soon as possible,” said Dudley Stewart, 49, a co-owner of the Queensboro restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, which had to cut back shifts for some employees to one day a week from five and six days before the pandemic.

So far, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has the power to impose capacity restrictions, has not indicated when the rules might change.

The return of indoor dining has also renewed public health concerns after a post-holiday spike in infection rates across the city, which has since declined, the emergence of new variants of the virus and still-limited supplies of vaccines.

W. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, has been vaccinated but said that he would still be cautious about where he dined indoors: He would choose only restaurants that had taken appropriate safety measures, including spacing tables at least six feet apart, maintaining adequate air flow, installing high-quality air filters and requiring servers to wear masks and gloves.

He would also avoid restaurants, he added, where there was a line to get in, a crowd around the bar or that blared music so that people would have to talk loudly, which if someone was infected, could result in more virus particles in the air.

“The number of places I will eat at is still small,” said Professor Lipkin, who recently dined at Farmer & the Fish, a restaurant in Westchester County that had sought out and followed his safety recommendations. “If it doesn’t feel safe, it’s better to go with takeout.”

While Mr. Rigie acknowledged that there was always some risk of virus exposure at a restaurant, he said that restaurants taking safety precautions have not been shown to be a major source of new infections in New York. He also emphasized that a balance had to be struck between public health concerns and the economic fallout from the virus.

“There’s no end in sight, and people have lost their livelihoods,” Mr. Rigie said. “It’s about managing risk. There’s no perfect solution.”

Restaurant owners and managers said they have rigorously followed safety precautions that are required under state guidelines and often gone beyond to protect their workers and diners. Restaurant workers have also recently joined the growing list of state residents eligible to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

Some New Yorkers were ready to head out to their favorite restaurants again, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ate lunch inside Hwa Yuan Szechuan in Chinatown on Wednesday.

Outside the Westville restaurant in Chelsea, a chalk sign read “Welcome Back Inside!!” with hand-drawn hearts. Inside, the workers wore masks. Liz Eagle, the general manager, and several others had already received their first dose of the vaccine.

Ms. Eagle said customers were warming up to the idea of indoor dining. “You’ve seen them move from takeout, then to outdoor dining, and then quite a few have been just very open and excited to come back inside,” she said.

Aime Kelly, 33, an actress who lives in Brooklyn, took a break from the cold and a busy schedule to enjoy lunch at Westville. “I’m kind of testing myself to see how comfortable I am,” said Ms. Kelly as she dug into a salad while leafing through a script. “It’s nice that places are open so that we can sit down and, if we need to, kill time in New York.”

But not even the draw of a warm seat could bring some diners inside.

“I’m still not ready to do indoor dining,” said Jennifer Brehm, 37, a teacher who huddled with her 8-month-old daughter, Cassia, at an outdoor cabana at Queen Bar & Restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, noting that Cassia “can’t wear a mask yet.”

Ms. Brehm said she was concerned about new virus variants and has been following the race to vaccinate as many people as possible to try to head off a new surge in infections. “It seems like we have a lot of cases right now,” she said. “So until it seems more under control, I won’t be ready to eat indoors.”

In Queens, Mr. Hussain, the owner of Addy’s Barbeque, was relieved to welcome customers to his dining room again, even in a limited fashion. He can seat no more than 17 people in a room that can hold 70.

Though Mr. Hussain has invested in an outdoor cabana — spending $22,000 to build it and another $8,000 on repairs after it was hit by a driver — business slowed when the weather turned cold. He ran up $22,730 in ConEd bills heating the cabana.

He had to lay off all his workers to cut costs. Fortunately, he had backup: his 14-year-old son.

The teenager, Syed Ibarat Hussain, now serves up barbecue in between his online classes. He works for free.

“Without my salary, without my son’s salary,” Mr. Hussain said. “We’re close to breaking even.”

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