Last week, New York City began reopening parts of the economy after an unprecedented three month long shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown has affected all facets of life in the city, and one area that has been devastated is the service industry — the restaurants and bars that haven't shuttered have struggled to remain open while offering only delivery and take-out.

It has now been nearly 100 days since the city’s dining and drinking establishments were ordered to close their doors to dine-in customers on March 16th. Under the current reopening plan, the earliest they could reopen their dining rooms and barstools is during Phase 3 — coming sometime later this summer, barring any spike in cases. Even then, their maximum capacity would be limited.

For some of these businesses, this extended shutdown will mean they can never open their doors again. We're already seeing it happen — over the last three months, bars and restaurants around the city have announced they would be permanently closing, including several historic and long-running neighborhood establishments. The earliest closures included Lucky Strike in SoHo, which confirmed it was going out of business on April 15th after 31 years, and Coogan’s in Washington Heights, which announced it was closing for good on April 21st after 35 years.

A survey conducted in mid-April by the National Restaurant Association found that four percent of restaurants across the state of New York had permanently closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and that another seven percent expected to close in the next 30 days. “The restaurant industry is teetering on the edge of collapse,” said Melissa Fleischut, the president of the New York State Restaurant Association, in an April 21st report. “Those that are staying open for takeout and delivery can hopefully tread water long enough to remain viable in the long run.”

Bars and restaurants continued to announce closures in May; on May 3rd, the Paris Cafe announced it would not reopen, after 147 years in the South Street Seaport. And on May 7th, an especially dark day at the height of the pandemic, Gem Spa, the iconic corner store in the East Village, announced it would be closing after almost 100 years, while the Irish Cottage, a 60 year old neighborhood pub in Forest Hills, announced it would not reopen after the death of its owner, Kathleen McNulty, due to coronavirus. That same week, news broke that Jimmy Glenn, the proprietor of the legendary boxing bar Jimmy’s Corner, had also passed away from the coronavirus, after operating his bar in Times Square for 49 years.

A photo of Muhammed Ali and his friend Jimmy Glenn, who owned Jimmy's Corner bar in midtown.

Jimmy's Corner Facebook page

In the months to come, even more neighborhood establishments are expected to go out of business. “I think you are going to see 30 to 40 percent of bars and restaurants close in the next few months,” said Peter Walsh, one of the owners of Coogan’s. “People have changed their habits, they are not going to be saying ‘I want to be around a crowd.’ And when they do go back to that, is it going to be a year, two years? They are going to have to redevelop what cities are, because small businesses are dying.”

The final day for Coogan’s was on May 27th, after Walsh and his partners had auctioned off their pots and pans, and given away all of their chairs and mementos to neighbors. That day, as they swept out their empty restaurant and returned the keys to their landlord, a sense of loss began to creep in. “I just kept on sweeping, just to keep occupied. Because my emotions were camouflaged by keeping busy, and I kind of put them in a hatbox,” said Walsh. “And it’s starting to hit now, now that we transferred it back to the landlord.”

Even though Coogan’s landlord, the New York-Presbytarian Hospital, had offered to forgive their rent, the restaurant was incurring $30,000 a month in expenses during the shutdown, and its owners decided they could no longer afford to remain in business. “I have never seen a bar that was gotten rid of when they should have been,” said Walsh, who has been in the restaurant industry for 50 years. “People stayed on too long and they lost a lot more than they should have. So we made a decision quickly, and now we are seeing a lot more people coming down the road doing the same thing, which is unfortunate.”

While the pandemic has caused bars and restaurants around the city to close prematurely, many were already teetering on the brink. Coogan’s had almost shut down once before in 2018, after facing a $40,000 rent increase. And in the weeks before the pandemic hit, two other historic establishments shuttered, unrelated to the coronavirus. On March 5th, Fine & Shapiro, the oldest kosher restaurant in the city, was reported to have permanently closed after 93 years on the Upper West Side, and on March 10th, Frank’s Cocktail Lounge announced that it would be permanently closing, after 48 years in Fort Greene.

For the restaurant industry, the pandemic has been the latest setback during a lengthy period of decline. “This industry has been dying for a long time. This is the straw that is breaking the camel’s back, but there have been a lot of straws that have been piling on for so long,” said Loycent Gordon, the owner of Neir’s Tavern, a 190 year old bar and restaurant in Woodhaven. “I spoke to several people who own bars, people who own diners, people who own Michelin star restaurants. All of them that I spoke to, every day they are bleeding out. It’s like someone just cutting an artery, and every day that goes by, we are bleeding out, and there is going to be a point of no return.”

Much like Coogan’s, Neir’s had also recently survived a near-fatal rent increase shortly before the pandemic. In January, the owner of their building raised the rent by more than $2,000 a month, forcing Gordon to announce that he would be permanently closing his doors. A last minute reprieve was negotiated by the city, but just three months later, Neir’s closed its doors due to the pandemic, and is now trying to find a realistic path forward.

“We are taking it day to day. We don’t know what's going to happen next. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” said Gordon, who last week told us he hoped to be able to reopen for take out and delivery soon (they did), and to hold on long enough to eventually return to serving customers indoors. “The worst case scenario is – what if this pandemic returns? What if these numbers spike, especially after the protests? If I am going to reopen, I am going to make sure I have a sustainable model, as best I can.”

The pandemic could not have come at a worse time for New York’s small businesses, according to Jeremiah Moss, who has been documenting the loss of the city’s unique mom-and-pop shops for the last 13 years at his blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. During the pandemic, he has reported on the shutdown of several neighborhood favorites, the most recent being Foley’s, an Irish bar filled to the rafters with baseball memorabilia, which announced its closure on May 29th after 16 years in business.

“It’s really the perfect recipe for a small business apocalypse. Years of impossible rents, and then you put a disaster like this on top of it. It’s the end, it’s absolutely the end,” said Moss. “We are going to come out of this pandemic and find that we have lost our neighborhoods. We have lost our neighborhood flavor. We have lost the people that we knew, who ran and worked in these businesses. And it will be an incalculable kind of loss. Because it’s not just the places, it’s what they meant to us, how they were part of our everyday fabric.”

The loss of so many small businesses could actually have been avoided, or at least mitigated, according to Moss. “The city leaders could have remedied this years ago. We have been lobbying them and pushing them for a rent regulation bill of some kind for so many years, and they haven’t done anything, and they are still not doing anything,” said Moss. “If those things had been in place years ago, when they should have been, a lot of these businesses would have been surviving now.”

“For years we have had empty storefronts, from landlords who are warehousing commercial spaces on the first floor. You know, papered over windows, For Rent signs,” said Moss. “It’s going to be more of that, it’s going to be more of this ghost town feeling. Nobody is going to move into those spaces until the rent comes down… And in the meantime, I think we are going to go through a very fallow period, that will be lonely and depressing.”