The New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents thousands of restaurants, bars and nightlife venues across the city, was joined by several restaurant owners at a press conference today to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo come up with a plan for the return of indoor dining in NYC—or at the very least, a clear timeline on reopening dining rooms, and an explanation as to why indoor dining has been allowed elsewhere in the state, but not in the city.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said they have not been told why New York City restaurants are not opening in a similar fashion to restaurants in other parts of the state. "We're here to demand a plan from Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to justify why the city of New York has met, sustained and exceeded the benchmarks that has allowed the rest of the state to reopen, as health metrics continue to go down, but there is no plan for the city" to bring back indoor dining amidst the ongoing pandemic.
He said that survival of the entire industry is incumbent upon indoor dining restarting, because "as much as outdoor dining has been helping, it was never meant as a solution to save our restaurants." Outdoor dining also has an end date of October 31st as of now, and as the weather turns colder this fall, it's hard to predict how many customers will want to dine outside. It's also difficult to say whether New Yorkers are ready to partake in indoor dining at levels that will actually benefit restaurants fully reopening.
Rigie added that while they want to collaborate with officials to come up with a reopening plan, suing the state would likely be the next step. As an example, he noted that after a group of gym owners sued, the state almost immediately came up with a reopening plan that is now being enacted.
"I've been hearing from business owners around the city that they want to go to court," Rigie said. "This is our attempt to get a plan ASAP for reopening indoors. And we will see what happens or next steps."
Indoor dining has been allowed at 50% capacity throughout the rest of the state since mid-June, and was supposed to begin in NYC at the start of Phase 3 at the beginning of July. But officials nixed that plan, citing spikes in COVID-19 cases in other parts of the world that had been traced back to indoor bars and restaurants.
"The experiment has been successful, and there's no health or scientific basis to continue to discriminate against NYC by prohibiting dining here in the city," said Robert Bookman, general counsel for NYC Hospitality Alliance. "There is not a scientific difference between a restaurant in the Bronx and southern Westchester. If it's not scientific based, what is it based on? It's beginning to seem a lot more like stubbornness than science."
Several restaurant owners from across the five boroughs took part in the Zoom press conference as well, including Tren’ness Woods-Black, owner of Sylvia’s in Harlem; George Constantinou, owner of Bogota Latin Grille, Miti Miti and Medusa in Brooklyn; Alfonso Zhicay, owner of Casa de Chef in Queens; Massimo Felici, owner of Vinum in Staten Island; Alfredo Angueira, owner of Bricks & Hops, Bronx Drafthouse, and Beatstro in the Bronx; and Blair Papagni, owner of Anella in Brooklyn.
NYC is "the greatest city for dining in the world and [we don't know] when we're going to open," said Woods-Black. "We're not asking to open tomorrow, we're simply asking for the simplest thing: a plan. Some input, some direction, some light at the end of the tunnel, some answers to questions that so many of our employees have."
"Public health and safety are of utmost importance to staff and customers, but we can see for two months in the rest of New York state that indoor dining has been successful," said Constantinou. "Outdoor dining is a lifeline, but not a solution. I still struggle to pay bills, payroll, vendors, health insurance for employees, I still pay rent at pre-COVID rates, and have business loans. It's difficult, stressful and scary...we need you to help us."
Anguilera thanked officials for what they had come up with so far—like alcohol to-go orders, and outdoor dining—but said those were band-aids and short-term fixes. "We can see fall and winter approaching, and those are not sustainable models for fall and winter," he said. "We're asking for information, we're asking for guidance, we're asking for a semblance of understanding of the problem."
"Outdoor patios are wonderful things, thank you, but we can't use propane heaters. What happens when temperatures drop? NYPD is going to shut us down if we do. So how do I keep the area heated and sustain business? Do I just shut down until next spring?" he continued. "The fabric of NYC, and I do not mean this as hyperbole, the fabric of the city is at stake."
On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio did not offer any hints as to when indoor dining could resume, but did note "the most important thing is to get to a point where we have a vaccine, and then we can really come back but we’re going to be very very careful." A spokesperson for the mayor clarified that a vaccine is not "a definitive requirement for indoor dining," and pointed to statements made by NYC public health advisor Dr. Jay Varma as a window into how the administration is thinking about the question and how to proceed.
When you look at the data really from across the world, there is no doubt, one very common setting in which infections occur – and not just individual infections, but what we call super spreading events where one person can transmit to five, 10, 15, or 20 people – and those are settings where there was indoor dining and drinking. And the reasons for that are clear, we know that any place that is indoors is riskier than any place outdoors and we know that anywhere where you can't wear face protection is riskier than a place where you can. And, of course, when people are eating and drinking, they can't wear that type of facial protection. We just saw just in the past 24 hours, that Hong Kong, for example, is experiencing its third wave. And what was their first step that they took? It's to limit indoor dining and restaurants. So, we are really watching what's going on around the world. And as Commissioner Chokshi and the Mayor had said earlier on, we're using that data to guide us. So, that's really what we need to do to maintain the stability of case counts that we have right now.
On Wednesday morning, Cuomo addressed the question of indoor dining during his press conference, stating that it isn't up to the city or any local county to change the rules on indoor dining -- it's up to him. "New York City doesn't decide when the New York City restaurants open," he said. "Nassau doesn't decide when the Nassau restaurants open. The worst thing we can do now is cause confusion for people with different politicians saying different things."
He went on to differentiate between the city and other parts of the state on issues of compliance with the safety guidelines: "They're different demographically, they're different by population, they're different by density, they're different by crowding factor," he said. "Westchester never had the problem that New York City had. Nassau never had the problem that New York City had. They are two totally different environments, and are we more carefully in New York City because of those factors? Of course we are."
"We have a much bigger problem in New York City today than any of the surrounding suburbs with a lack of compliance. The restaurants are much more of a problem today. The bars are a much bigger problem today than Nassau or Westchester."
According to an analysis by Gothamist, over 100 NYC establishments have had their liquor licenses suspended over the last month for violating the state's COVID-19 guidelines, with almost 50 percent of them getting suspensions because of indoor dining.