The light at the end of the tunnel got a little dimmer for restaurants in New York City and New Jersey. Restauranteurs were finally prepared to welcome diners back inside after months of being closed and reorganizing venues to work at limited capacity service due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I woke up this morning and it was the first thing I checked — whether or not we were able to open indoor dining,” restaurant owner Emanuele Nigro told ABC News.
Nigro and hundreds of others restaurant owners will have to wait. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday that New York City restaurants will not be allowed to reopen for indoor dining at reduced capacity as part of phase 3 on July 6 as previously planned.
“Indoors is the problem. The science is showing it more and more. We cannot go ahead at this point in time with indoor dining in New York City,” de Blasio said at a press conference.
His decision came in tandem with an announcement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said the next phase would be postponed in New York City until further notice, even as the rest of the state moves forward with plans to reopen.
“It’s going to be postponed until the facts change and it is prudent to open. But the facts have to change because at this point it is imprudent,” Cuomo said during a press conference. “This is a New York City-only modification, because frankly it is a problem that is most pronounced in New York City.”
Cuomo said he was worried about cases going up in other states, but said the decision was made “partially [because of] lack of citizen compliance and lack of local government compliance enforcement.”
A majority of local businesses had planned for weeks how to restructure, had placed food orders, set new menus and hired back staff in advance of the anticipated third phase rollout.
Like so many restaurants in the city, Nigro said his West Village Italian spot Osteria 57 “had staff on standby to work next week, so this was another setback. It’s difficult to run our operation in this way without proper direction in advance.”
Businesses in New York City that got the news just five days before they were set to serve guests at socially distanced tables inside, like Brooklyn Chop House, said, “It’s a complete disaster what they’re doing to restaurant entrepreneurs.”
“This has hurt every restaurant I know. There’s been a tremendous amount of losses in regards to food and staffing. You need seven to 10 days to prepare to reopen a restaurant and now everything we had to get ready for July 6 is down the drain,” Stratis Morfogen, the restaurant’s director of operations, told ABC News. “This isn’t like turning on a light switch. There’s weeks of preparation. Every restaurant has rehired staff and bought food.”
The New York City Hospitality Alliance, a nonprofit organization that represents hundreds of restaurants and nightlife venues across the five boroughs, has seen firsthand the financial devastation inflicted by COVID-19 on the hard-hit restaurant industry and said in a press release Wednesday that “the only thing they can afford less than not reopening now, is to reopen, rehire and resupply to only be shut down again.”
Andrew Rigie, the nonprofit’s executive director, told ABC News that after four months of “making financial sacrifices” restaurants’ “survival now depends on compensation reflective of those losses.”
“We respect the government and public health officials’ decision to postpone the anticipated July 6 reopening of indoor dining, but the longer neighborhood restaurants and bars are forced to be closed, the harder it will be for them to ever successfully reopen,” he explained. “This makes it even more urgent to forgive rent, expand outdoor dining and enact other responsive policies to save our city’s beloved small businesses and jobs.”
Longtime New York City and New Jersey restaurateur Leah Cohen has seen the incredible toll COVID-19 has had on the industry, but after losing her own father to the virus in April, she also understands the greater implications.
“I fully support Cuomo and his decision to postpone indoor dining. He has been a true leader in New York and has been data driven not politically driven during our reopening process,” Cohen told ABC News. “He has made smart decisions so far. The last thing we need to do is reopen just to shut back down.”
“While we did prepare the restaurant for the return of indoor dining, we personally were not prepared to open that part of our business at this time,” she said. “Our family has been through a lot and we had to take every precaution, and wait an extended period of time before reopening to ensure everyone’s safety.”
Cohen said that right now she is “thrilled to finally reopen” her vibrant Filipino and Thai restaurant Pig & Khao on the Lower East Side. It will start fulfilling takeout orders next week after being closed since March.
The chef and business owner moved her former New Jersey waterfront bar and restaurant into the heart of midtown Manhattan with the opening of Piggyback, her second New York City restaurant, which welcomed its first guests just weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak shut down the city.
But much like Morfogen, Cohen understands that other restaurants may now be reeling from the losses that come with the last-minute change of plans.
“I know a lot of my friends in the industry were ready and hopeful that we would be given the green light to move into phase 3 and I feel for them. I truly do,” she said. “Many of them have rehired employees in preparation of Phase 3 only to now turn around and tell people they are out of work again,” Cohen said.
Cohen furthered Rigie’s point and called on city leaders to do more to help hard-hit restaurants with alternatives.
“I would have loved to see the city, in the same press conference postponing indoor dining, announcing expansion plans of outdoor dining areas. We need their support not just their concern,” she said. “We need their help shutting down streets so people aren’t setting up table and chairs with traffic going by. We need their help in working around problems safely.”
The days and weeks ahead for New York City and New Jersey restaurants that have to postpone immediate plans for indoor dining remain uncertain, but restaurant owners like Cohen reiterated the importance of why it needed to be pushed back.
“While it is a scary decision for the hospitality industry as a whole, to postpone indoor dining, it will also be a very personal decision for each restaurant owner as to when and how to restart indoor dining when the time comes,” she said. “None of this is easy or cut and dry. I am terrified for our industry and what’s to come, but having personally seen the toll COVID takes on human life, I am more worried about everyone’s health and safety first and foremost.”