A new winter COVID-19 surge in New York City has temporarily shuttered more than two dozen restaurants, battering an industry that had only begun to claw its way back from a nearly two-year pandemic ordeal.
Almost all the restaurants that have closed have put up statements on Instagram explaining there are confirmed COVID-19 exposures among their staff, as the delta and omicron variants tear through the city. On Thursday, Eater compiled a list of a dozen of the restaurants, some of which have since reopened and some of which said they won't reopen for several days.
That number ballooned to at least 30 by Friday morning.
"It's a bummer to limp into the holiday break on such a difficult week for everyone," said Chef Dennis Ngo, who runs Greenpoint's Di An Di, which shut down Wednesday after one positive case on their team.
"We take this stuff very seriously," Ngo told Gothamist. "That necessitated us closing, and then we required everyone to go out and get tested. We were asking all of our team members to either get two rapid tests back-to-back on consecutive days, or one PCR test. And based on that, we would have felt comfortable opening if we had all of those results in for today, but we experienced a lot of testing challenges."
He said his 30 employees were met with long lines at testing locations around Greenpoint, and many sites ended up running out of rapid tests.
"Even the ones that got PCRs, they were promised results by the end of the day yesterday, and they still haven't seen results yet," he noted Thursday. Some tried to get home tests, but they "had to go to three or four pharmacies to get it. It became kind of a game yesterday of trying to find what was the fastest place or easiest way to get them rapid tests."
Ngo estimated the restaurant loses around $7,000-$9,000 each night it's closed. On top of that, they were already planning to close for two weeks at the end of the month starting next week to give their team a break from such a challenging year, so it's unclear whether they'll have the chance to reopen before then.
So far, there are more than ten restaurants in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area that have shut down:Bernie's, Cozy Royale, Di An Di, We Got Company, Winonas, Thief, Frankel's Delicatessen, Pheasant, L'industrie Pizzeria, Misi, Lilia, Five Leaves, Four Horsemen. There were several more in other Brooklyn neighborhoods: LaLou, Love, Nelly, Nite Nite, Oxalis, Rialto Grande, Otway, Bar Meridian. Grand Army Bar and Ugly Baby both announced they would stay closed until the end of the year.
The surge has also hit places in Ridgewood, including The Acre (who recommended that anyone who went there this week get tested), Porcelain, and I Like Food (who said they would remain closed until after Christmas). Other restaurants that have shut down in various parts of the city include Temperance Wine Bar in the West Village, Bessou in the Lower East Side and Top Quality in Long Island City.
East Harlem's Contento, which was named one of the New York Times' top 10 restaurants of 2021, said Wednesday it was closing "for a couple of days in an abundance of caution to protect our guests and staff due to a positive COVID case this past weekend."
And the New York Post reported that Marea, located on Central Park South at Columbus Circle, quietly closed last Saturday over “a big kitchen outbreak” in which more than 20 people were reportedly infected "both in the kitchen and front of the house.”
Stephanie Gallardo, the co-owner of Love, Nelly bakery in Bedford-Stuyvesant, told Gothamist that someone on her six-person staff had a breakthrough case, which kicked in the store's COVID protocols: everyone has to get a rapid test and a PCR test, and if the rapid comes back negative, they’re cleared to work. They were able to reopen a day later, but Gallardo is concerned about the current difficulties in getting tested — it's a domino effect which could lead to the store shutting down longer the next time something like this happens.
"Everyone that worked got tested, some people were off and they were like, 'I waited two hours and they ran out of tests' or 'I went to four different places, the lines are outrageous, they don't have room for me," Gallardo said. “And that's been the normal. I had a few of them, three of my employees waited for over two hours to get tested between yesterday and today."
If the bakery shuts down for a full day, she estimates they'd lose a couple thousand dollars in revenue, but they have other complicated logistics, including shipping for their sister bakery Butter and Scotch, making pre-orders, cake pickups, etc.
"We can't lose those already guaranteed orders and sales — there's just so many things that go into it," she said. "To go into shutdown mode everything has to shift and everyone kind of has to put their heads together and figure out how we survive for a day or two .. I feel like this is definitely going to be happening for a while through the new year.”
Experts say fear is spreading through the industry right now.
"It's holiday season, restaurants and workers are relying on holiday business, and now companies are canceling parties, some restaurants are having workers call out with COVID, and it's creating a lot of chaos for places," said Andrew Rigie, executive director of NYC Hospitality Alliance. "Most restaurants want and need to stay open, especially during the holiday season, but unfortunately COVID-19 is again disrupting some of their plans."
He said this is "yet another example of how our city’s restaurants are still getting clobbered and need more support," pointing to various measures officials could take to aid restaurants during this period, including replenishing the restaurant revitalization fund, providing more PPP loan forgiveness, and allowing propane heaters for outdoor dining.
"I work in the industry, and quite frankly I'd rather not be at this point,” said one Brooklyn restaurant worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their employment status. "I feel like it has to be expected at this point, what with Americans in general being a spoiled, selfish lot, and until we get both this country and the world at large vaccinated we're going to be extras in our own little Groundhog Day."
Patrons were also trying to gauge their comfort level with dining out during this surge.
"I’m nervous and very cautious these days," said Melisa Venegas, of the Riverdale section of the Bronx. "I used to celebrate before the holidays and travel after, but even that I’m really nervous about. I don’t think I’ll ever travel as I used to. I’m cooking more too and eating at home."
Williamsburg resident Doug Green said he would confine his dining forays to his usual haunts.
"We have a couple of places where we know the owners and would feel safe dining out, as we trust them to be safe,” he said. “That being said, it seems that places are taking the necessary steps to stay safe but there are still cases spreading?"
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday the city would ramp up testing after seeing "very substantial increases in COVID cases in the last few days." Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, added the seven-day positivity average for new cases had tripled over the last month.
“The data that we monitor so closely is showing an alarming trend. Omicron is here in New York City and it is spreading quickly,” he said. “I do expect cases will continue to increase in the coming days.”
At the end of November, city officials recommended that all New Yorkers wear a mask indoors and in public settings. In early December, de Blasio announced that anyone over the age of 12 who wants to go to a restaurant, gym or entertainment venue will have to show they've received at least two vaccine doses starting December 27th, and that children between the ages of five and 11 will have to show proof of vaccination to participate in those indoor activities as well, beginning December 14th.
At the time, restaurants told Gothamist they were frustrated with the lack of communication on the part of the city leaders and concerned about the financial challenges they faced during an already difficult time of year to get people to eat indoors.
Ngo, the chef at Di An Di, said that lack of guidance from officials has contributed to the panic and confusion this week.
"We've done everything that the government and our leadership has asked us to. And it's frustrating to me that there's no guide for us on how to operate our restaurant right now, and how we deal with these things,” he told Gothamist. “I talked to everyone else that's closed, and I sense the same frustration from them, like, 'Man, we're just trying to figure out how to make this work.' Yeah, I don't know how we're going to make this work. It's what I suspect is going to continue to happen."
He added the continued financial toll comes as government support appears to be drying up.
"I don't foresee any more government assistance coming in,” he said.” We're left to our own devices how to figure this one out, and how to weather these storms, because it's one to two day closures at a minimum for a lot of restaurants … We operate on such razor thin margins. It's one added thing that reminds all of us that this is far from over."