Indoor dining will officially resume in New York City today for the first time since the start of the pandemic. During a press conference this morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio stressed the importance of restaurants following the city's COVID safety guidelines, including 25% capacity indoors, temperature checks, table social distancing, mask compliance and more.
"We actually are open now and it's feeling nice, like going back to normal kind of situation, like back in the days—not 100 percent, but somewhat," Nidia Marino, the manager of Park Slope Mexican restaurant Mezcals, said on Wednesday. Outdoor dining was hard, he explained, "because of the heat and the mask and the gloves and all that stuff. Now with the 25 percent inside we're gonna see how it goes. We're just starting today and just gotta go day by day."
There was only one table dining indoors at Mezcals this afternoon. South Slope resident Matt Koval, 45, said he came "just because it was the first day to do it. It just kind of felt right. The weather was just chilly enough to be inside. It feels great." Koval felt that the restaurant had taken "great precautions" to make things safer.
"I hope this lasts as long as it can," added Jerry Houser, 42, who was eating with him. "I hope we don't dive back into something bad, but I want to enjoy it while it lasts. It's nice to actually be in and see walls of an actual restaurant again. It's been a long time since I've done it in the city."
One of the obstacles to bringing back indoor dining in NYC was the question of how regulations would be enforced. The city agreed to enlist 400 "code enforcement inspectors" from various agencies to help with this effort. And today, the mayor said city inspectors will initially be focused on the COVID "hot spots" in Brooklyn and Queens where there have been alarming upticks in recent days. "There's going to be a very rigorous inspection effort in those zip codes, we're going to be looking carefully to make sure every restaurant is following the rules," de Blasio said.
If restaurants are caught breaking the 25% indoor limit, if employees are not wearing masks, if people are seen consuming alcohol at a bar—no bar service is allowed, meaning people can't sit at bars but can still be served drinks at their tables—then that could lead to "immediate summonses."
"We certainly don't want to see any restaurants shut down, but we need to be very rigorous everywhere in the city, particularly in those zip codes in Brooklyn and Queens where we're having problems now," de Blasio said. "We want to support this industry, but it has to be done safely."
Some restaurateurs are instituting even stricter measures to make diners feel more comfortable returning. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group partnered with CLEAR, the secure identity company, to implement a new health screening process, including touchless access when employees report to work: "Employees approach a CLEAR kiosk, where they receive a temperature check, and scan their QR code to share their health insights. Depending on their COVID related health information, employees are issued a red or green Health Pass on their app."
Many restaurants have embraced the fact that they can only have a fraction of the number of tables they normally would have. French brasserie Bouillon Marseille in Hells Kitchen, Singaporean restaurant Laut Singapura in Flatiron District, Indian restaurant Rahi in West Village, and all three locations of paella bar Socarrat will have about 18 seats indoors. Other places are not so lucky: Crop Circle in Greenwich Village will have just four seats, plus a transparent protection shield at the counter to protect staff and customers. And Carmine's, the classic red sauce joint located in Times Square, isn't reopening yet because "there is no theater, no tourists, and many businesses in the area are closed" (their UWS location will reopen with about 90 seats and 90-minute table limits).
Malissa Brown, co-owner of NeGril BK on 5th Avenue, said that her restaurant can hold about 22 people; they've also put in plexiglass at the host stands, they have sanitizers at the tables, QR code menus, and more. "We plan on opening up tomorrow," she said. "It's definitely been a struggle, but we have no choice because even though outdoor is extended, on the bad weather days, we have to make sure we have another source of income."
She said her staff is still concerned because "it was one thing to be outdoors, but there's another layer of being really strict with our policies indoors." People will have to get up to use bathrooms, but they have to keep people seated and not moving throughout the space otherwise, but still try to provide an enjoyable dining experience. Ultimately, "it beats not being open at all, so we're thankful for it absolutely."
Some restaurants are adapting in other ways: Aquavit in Midtown East will be able to fit 42 seats, and are adding indoor air quality products such as HEPA filters, UV light and ionization solutions "to trap and kill a virus before entering the room." The East Village's Luthun, which specializes in tasting menus, will install partitions to complement the open kitchen design so "guests can still watch as they cook and plate food without fear of contamination." They also are limiting people to two hour dining windows to ensure there is no overlap in people waiting to dine.
But don't expect to see de Blasio sitting down to eat a slice of pizza with a fork and knife in a restaurant anytime soon. Asked on Wednesday whether he'd visit a local restaurant to partake in indoor dining, he said his plan was to "continue to enjoy outdoor dining first while the weather is still good."
"I personally just prefer outdoor dining while it's available, I'd always choose it," he said when questioned about what kind of signal it sends. "I think there's lots of people who are going to love the opportunity to dine indoors, and they'll have that opportunity...if you have the resources, please get out there and support our restaurant industry today, whether it's outdoor or indoor, get out there."
De Blasio isn't alone in his reluctance to embrace indoor dining immediately. Epidemiologists remain "deeply conflicted" about the potential risks of eating indoors. Many of the major NYC food critics, including editors from the NY Times, Eater, Grub Street, Time Out & Taste, said they too were hesitant to do so while we're still in the midst of a pandemic. Times critic Pete Wells wrestled with the ethics and safety of it in a column this week: "I can’t believe we’re going to risk another outbreak in New York so restaurants can have dining rooms that are three-quarters empty. I can’t believe restaurants and the people who work in them have been failed so badly by Washington that many will have no choice but to go along with it."
Bushwick resident Christina Loiacono said she wasn't quite ready to go indoors yet while eating outside at Bar Basic on 7th Avenue on Wednesday. "We're from Long Island and we live here, but there they're already inside, and I don't really feel comfortable going inside a restaurant, fully inside, if there's like a bunch of other people," the 26-year-old told Gothamist. "It feels weird I think. You're kind of like unsure, because I want to be respectful of him [points at waiter] and of other people around me, so when people come up to give me my drinks, I'll put my mask on."
Loiacono's server was Michael Kydes, who also works as a bartender and wine buyer for Bar Basic. "The real question is how long is it gonna take for people to start to get comfortable with indoor dining again," he said. "So we're ready, but we're gonna wait for others to be ready...I've got one table [indoors] right now, but we'll know more once I've got a full restaurant."
Kydes thinks customers will appreciate having the extra space indoors, but is concerned about the city or state shutting things down again. "If they pull the plug again for safety reasons I understand, but you have to understand from a restaurant economic position I gotta throw out all the food if we shut down. That can be a huge cost. It's very difficult to restart. We already threw everything away once."
Restaurateurs and industry experts have all said that the return of indoor dining alone, especially at smaller capacities and at a time when so many are not yet comfortable eating indoors, is not enough to offset the incredible damage COVID has wrought on small business owners. A recent report found that nearly 90% of restaurants and bars were unable to pay full rent in August, and another report from the New York State Restaurant Association [NYSRA] found that two-thirds of New York restaurants said they are likely to close by the end of the year without a comprehensive relief package specifically for restaurants. This is why many in the industry have called on Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act, a bipartisan federal bill that would create a $120 billion fund to aid small and locally-owned restaurants, and cover the difference between revenues from 2019 and estimated revenues through the rest of the year.
On a more positive note, de Blasio announced last week that the city's outdoor dining program will become "permanent and year-round." That includes the combination of Open Restaurants/Open Street locations, of which there are at least 87 participating streets. Restaurants will be allowed to expand into sidewalk and curbside spaces in front of adjacent storefronts, they can put up tents or plastic domes, and they'll be allowed to use propane heaters for the first time.
De Blasio said that these outdoor dining programs "have been a huge step forward, not just for the restaurant industry and the hundreds of thousands of people who work in it, but for the city as a whole. This is a new approach that will make this a better city."
He also took a shot at Trump's comments about NYC during the debate last night: "Some people like to allege that New York City is a 'ghost town.' I would urge those people to go see the booked-solid outdoor dining all over this city that has been such a success."