NYC restaurateurs plead for indoor dining

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

NYC restaurateurs plead for indoor dining

An industry leader asks why city restaurants can’t follow the same rules as upstate eateries.
September 2, 2020

When New York City abandoned its plans to reopen indoor dining in July, even as other regions of the state proceeded with restricted eating indoors, restaurant owners in the city thought it might be a temporary pause. But two months later, there’s no sign that restaurants will be able to welcome patrons inside anytime soon. 

Asked about the topic this week as New Jersey moved to reopen indoor dining, neither Gov. Andrew Cuomo nor Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed inclined to suggest that New York City would follow in its neighbor’s footsteps. At a press conference on Wednesday, de Blasio announced that he would make a decision on allowing indoor dining by the end of September, “whether it’s good or bad news.” “We owe the industry as clear an answer as humanly possible soon, but it’s always going to be about health and safety first,” he said

The public health risks of indoor dining are well documented. Restaurants across the country have had COVID-19 outbreaks among staff, and public health experts have warned that eating indoors poses unique risks when it comes to transmitting the coronavirus. Not only are patrons seated in an enclosed space for an extended amount of time, but they’re also not able to wear masks while eating. Some have also suggested that drinking alcohol can make people less vigilant about taking safety precautions such as social distancing.

Still, the restaurant industry says that the inability to serve patrons indoors has led to further economic devastation, and they continue to call on Cuomo and de Blasio to allow indoor dining in the city. Over 300 restaurant owners filed a class-action suit over the continued ban on indoor dining seeking $2 billion damages, and the NYC Hospitality Alliance, an industry group representing restaurants and bars across the city, has threatened its own lawsuit.

City & State caught up with Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, to discuss the future of indoor dining, as well as other steps the city and state could take to ease the financial burden many in the industry now face. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Indoor dining is still not allowed in New York City, despite it being allowed in other parts of the state. What are restaurant owners feeling right now, what are you hearing from your members?

It’s devastating, it’s absolutely devastating. Small business owners are exhausting their personal savings with the hopes of being able to keep the restaurant open and hire their employees back. But they're getting absolutely no guidance on when they will potentially be able to open up indoors. It’s been more than five months since they've been shut down by government. And now that same government is not providing them rent relief, nor are they providing them a plan to reopen as we enter the cooler months, and outdoor dining won't be a reality for those restaurants that are currently participating. But even then, there are more than 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in the five boroughs and less than half of them are participating in outdoor dining. And that's no way to sustain your business. The anger is starting to boil now, because the reasoning for keeping them shut makes no sense to anyone. New York City has met, sustained and exceeded all the health metrics that have allowed restaurants throughout the rest of the state to open up safely for the past two months. And we haven't seen a spike of infections. In fact, it's the opposite. We've seen infection rates continue to go down. In fact, there's places throughout the state that have higher infection rates that are doing indoor dining than New York City, where we don't have indoor dining. Now, with the news that New Jersey's opening restaurants for indoor dining, it's compounded the uncertainty, the fear and the anger. New York City will now be surrounded by indoor dining, yet we will be locked out of participating in it.

You mention New York City’s low infection rate, but some of the people with concerns about indoor dining would argue that allowing people to start eating indoors at restaurants could ruin the city’s low infection rate. Part of the impetus for delaying indoor dining in New York City was watching states like Texas and Florida experience a surge in COVID-19 cases after allowing indoor dining earlier this summer. How do you contend with the unique risks that public health experts say indoor dining poses?

I should have prefaced it before, but public health and safety has to be paramount. The call to open indoor dining in New York City is not saying that we should have a disregard for public health and safety. It’s actually the opposite. I think we need to look at New York state's experience with indoor dining before we start looking everywhere else. The fact is, New York state has had indoor dining under the safety protocols developed by the state for more than two months, and infection rates have continued to go down. 

The NYC Hospitality Alliance has threatened to sue over the continued pause on indoor dining. Has that suit happened? If not, is it still an option on the table?

It is certainly on the table, we're exploring all of our options. Our number one goal is to work collaboratively with Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to safely open up restaurants. But we are at a boiling point, and the industry is in the midst of a crisis. They’re not receiving the financial support that they need, and they can't make sense of why they are being treated differently concerning indoor dining than every jurisdiction surrounding them.

What does an ideal, safe reopening of indoor dining look like in New York City?

We believe that the requirements that apply to the rest of the state (should) also apply to the city. That means that you’d operate at a 50% reduced capacity, and tables six feet apart. Fifty percent reduced capacity with tables six feet apart is the same in Staten Island as it is in Schenectady, New York. Masks for employees are the same, and other procedures are the same. I think restaurants – while not required – many of them will use digital menus, providing hand sanitizer. Some, voluntarily, will install different types of filtration or other systems. 

Summer is ending pretty quickly now, and while outdoor dining has been extended through the fall, presumably restaurants can’t do that through the winter or during inclement weather. What happens if the city does not allow indoor dining by the time it gets cold out and outdoor dining ends? 

It’s just an absolutely dire situation. You have to imagine thousands upon thousands of more restaurants will close and hundreds of thousands of people are out of work. I think the last Department of Labor (report) I saw was that there are still somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 New Yorkers that worked in food and drink establishments still out of work. If we don't get indoor dining, they're not coming back. 

Outdoor dining is not a replacement for indoor dining, essentially?

Outdoor dining is incredibly important, but it was never intended to be the sole solution to save restaurants. Initially, we knew there would be reduced capacity indoors. So the idea was to gain some of that capacity back using the outdoors. It was never intended to just be outdoor dining as your sole revenue stream. And takeout and delivery is helpful, but again, it’s not something that is going to sustain any business.

Do we know how many restaurants have fully closed during the pandemic?

Unfortunately not yet. I know that there was a report out of Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office last month that said something like 1,300 restaurants. But unfortunately, you have so many restaurants that haven’t reopened at all yet, so you don’t really know which ones are going to come back. So many of the ones currently open are being kept open artificially, because they received some PPP money, they have the moratorium on evictions, the (city) law suspending the enforcement of personal liability guarantees in leases. These have all given them a little bit of a lifeline. But every day that goes by, their time gets closer to an expiration date. They just can't do it. At this point, we need more support from the federal government. We have been urging the federal government to pass the Restaurants Act, which is a $120 billion program to give grants to restaurants to pay rent, utilities, payroll, vendors and others, and help them sustain their business.

Given the delay in the federal government getting another stimulus package together, to what extent are you able to pin your hopes on the federal government providing assistance to restaurants?

It’s my job to stay optimistic and keep fighting. We have the support of our U.S. senators and many of our members of Congress, but it's gonna come down to getting support from other states around the country. So it's hard to know what's exactly going to happen. But that’s why we cannot count on the federal government to help save us. We need the state and city of New York to step up to the plate and do everything they possibly can. Otherwise, we’re going to exacerbate the financial crisis. 

Apart from allowing indoor dining, what are the steps the city and state could take to help restaurants?

We need rent forgiveness. There's no way small business owners are going to be able to pay back multiple months of missed rent, nor will they be able to pay pre-pandemic rents moving forward. We conducted a survey in July of about 500 restaurants, and four out of five of the respondents did not pay any or only paid partial rent in the month of July. And only 1 out of 10 had renegotiated their lease. And I'm concerned that if we don't find a way to forgive rent, you will see defaults throughout the system. And what does it mean for even the smaller landlords that aren't able to absorb this and that have mortgages? They could default on their mortgage obligations. And then the financial situation of the state and city – if these businesses and landlords are unable to pay their property taxes, it's going to make it more and more difficult for our state and city to fund our essential services. 

Any final thoughts you want to relay on what the restaurant industry is going through right now?

Restaurants are vital to the economic footprint and social fabric of the city. Some feel forgotten, and others feel like they're being beat up. We need our government leaders to do everything to support them, and that includes getting indoor dining opened up safely, and providing rent relief and working collaboratively with the industry on all these issues to ensure the hospitality industry and our city are able to recover as soon as possible. 

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.