With fewer COVID-19 restrictions, increased vaccination rates and nicer weather, restaurant and bar owners in New York City say customers are returning in greater numbers to their establishments, bringing back a sense of optimism that has largely eluded one of the hardest hit industries by the pandemic.
“We're getting that energy back,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director at the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “We're getting that vibrancy back. There's still a long road to recovery, but we're in a much better place than we were just a couple of months ago.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this week that the state’s curfew will be lifted for outdoor dining beginning May 17th and for indoor dining May 31st. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he aims to fully reopen the city on July 1st.
“It means bars and restaurants being able to come back, bring back so many of their employees, serve so many more customers,” he said during his daily briefing.
Rigie said these announcements in combination with the opportunity to start applying next week for grants from the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund, part of the federal stimulus package passed in March, are bringing back a sense of hope. Restaurants, bars and other eligible businesses will be eligible for up to $10 million to make up for their pandemic-related revenue losses.
“It's going to be a really important time to get our restaurant industry moving, so we're cautiously optimistic,” he said.
Erin Bellard, owner of e’s BAR on the Upper West Side, said she’s currently breaking even, an improvement over a few months ago, when keeping the bar open meant losing money. She said recent increases in capacity and the availability of funds through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund made her confident enough to build a patio last week.
“People are out,” she said. “Money is starting to come in. And we felt comfortable for the first time being able to invest in the business rather than just like holding tight and hoping we were going to make it.”
Increased vaccination rates have also helped, bringing back more people, who now feel more comfortable sitting indoors. In New York City, more than half of residents over the age of 18 have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine.
“Most of our guests who are coming back and coming regularly have been vaccinated,” Bellard said.
She’s also hired back eight out of her 15 employees, part of a citywide uptick in restaurant and bar employment. James Parrott, an economist at the New School, said that even though the numbers are still far below their pre-pandemic levels, there were 171,000 people employed in the restaurant industry in March, an increase of around 23,000 compared to January. Before the pandemic hit last March, 290,000 people worked in the industry, which includes restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, according to the Department of Labor’s classification.
“In the restaurant area, that has been an area where we've seen some significant employment rebound in February and March, and we certainly expect to see that continue in April and the months ahead,” he said. “People are really anxious to return to activities that they enjoy and love and that are good for the economy.”
Still, there was uncertainty when capacity restrictions, which are under the state’s jurisdiction and currently at 50% for indoor dining, would be lifted. When asked about de Blasio’s plan to re-open the city on July 1st, Governor Cuomo said he wanted it to happen sooner but that it was “irresponsible” to make projections.
Owners said they were eagerly awaiting for more specifics.
“We're by far, I think, at the tail end of this pandemic,” said David Rosen, co-owner of five bars in Brooklyn and Queens. “But there’s still some degree of uncertainty on the timeframe of total return to normalcy in New York City.”