The Mayor put New York City's plans for indoor dining on indefinite hold at his press conference this morning. He talked about nationwide coronavirus surges and cited concerns about the indoor spread.
He made it clear: "We cannot go ahead at this point in time with indoor dining in New York City."
To Hell's Kitchen restaurants this is a bitter blow. Only 10 days ago they started to open with street seating, with the expectation that in a couple of weeks their capacity would be increased in Phase 3 with limited indoor seating. Around the city over 6,000 restaurants are participating in the outdoor dining program – with over 200 of those in and around Hell's Kitchen.
De Blasio is promising to "double down" on the expansion of that plan, but was light on details at this morning's conference.
Nicola Acari from Mercury Bar shared her frustrations with the limitations of outdoor seating. "We only have four tables. We have started to appeal to our customers to move on after an hour so that we can turn those table." She added: "We are asking guests to be mindful that every restaurant is surviving on their outdoor seating now."
Giovanni Morales, the general manager of Empanada Mama, called for the expansion of outdoor seating to include 9th Ave. He said: "Obviously it is very upsetting that we can not open for indoor dining. We were excited to add some much-needed revenue to a very tough last few months. The health of our employees and customers is of the utmost importance to us at all times. We will be waiting patiently for the green light to open inside. Closing down 9th Ave from 42nd to 57th St for dinner hours would be smart. The extra amount of space for tables in the summer would help dramatically."
Overall, the local mood is supportive of the move on health grounds, but concerned about the future of business. Mandy Oser, owner of Ardesia Wine Bar, reflected the feelings of many: "We think this is a wise decision – NYC has worked so hard to flatten the curve and why rush things and reverse the progress we’ve made? Of course, it’s difficult for our industry and we are eager to get back to some sense of normalcy but not at the expense of the health and safety of our community. We support the Mayor’s decision and look forward to continuing to serve the community safely outdoors on our patio."
Jim Lahey, the owner of Sullivan Street Bakery, pointed out the bigger picture. "The government is going to need to step in and subsidize this vast industry in the form of tax breaks, low-interest loans, and most importantly debt forgiveness. Until there is a cure or proven therapy for treatment, we cannot return to life as before, nor will things be the same after this catastrophe has washed over this county."
He went on to say: "The revenue that allowed the city to thrive is gone, and will not return for two to six years. Operators have told me that their revenues are down 80% and that there is no way to plan, no upside to stick it out. We need as a nation and as an industry to be thinking survival not profit. Our leaders should open the largesse of the federal government to rescue all of us."
Pocket Bar owner Suzy Darling is braving this all out with the support of the community. She told us: "I full-heartedly support safety. Before this announcement, I was already considering not doing indoor seating even if it was allowed. I’m not scientist or a doctor and I need to take advice from the experts. Financially, we will persevere. This community of Hell’s Kitchen is like love I’ve never known. And so many people have personally reached out to us to let us know under no circumstances will they let us fail. It’s breathtaking."
We spoke to Kevin Lee at @9 Restaurant on 9th Ave. He said: "Small businesses are going to die. We cannot hold it anymore. Rent in NYC is way too high. All businesses in Hell's Kitchen have the same problem. We still have to pay the same rent but we cannot do business like usual."
Peter Slaley from Westville said: "We have understandably mixed feelings. We're hoping that when we do get the chance to open for indoor dining, we can do so as safely and securely as possible. Since we have an in-depth safety plan already for our diners, the extra time to plan how to open for inside diners without adding risk may be a blessing. Of course, financially we are very much in need of the additional revenue brought by the increased dining – which I'm sure is not a story unique to Westville. If we can expand our outdoor dining situation this may help, but in the end we're feeling the loss of our community, atmosphere, and ability to function as a fully operational restaurant."
The appeals for financial relief continued with Daniele Kucera from Etcetera Etcetera on W44th St. "I think it’s a smart idea. Honestly, even with the outdoor dining, we are struggling. There are no shows, no tourists, lots of New Yorkers are out of town and a many others are still staying home." He added: "It is going to be a tough summer hoping that, by September, the numbers will go down and we’ll be able to get some business to survive. Also, the Governor and Mayor should work to pass a law reducing the rent and the real estate tax by 50% til at least January. If not, we are going to see a lot of businesses shut."
Some, like Beth Sheinis at The Hourglass Tavern on Restaurant Row were relieved: "Frankly it is a relief! Trying to renegotiate our space and the flow of service with an almost but not quite new menu to accommodate hot sweaty outdoor dining and train any staff in safety protocol while trying service is overwhelming.
"Concentrating on the logistics of the outdoor seating and all that schlepping is a full time endeavor. And until the public fully accepts limitations and protocol outside, they will not fluidly accept the back of the house considerations that we owners and service staff need to be 100% tight on for everyone’s safety and efficiency of service."
She warned: "No business can be successful if half the public and the work force is dead or physically suffering. Safety and health is always first."
Prakesh Hundalani from Mamasita on 10th Avenue shared his pain: "Well it’s painful to see no business. Indoor dining is what we depend on. We have no space to have outdoor dining and for a few tables it’s difficult to even spend $ 500 to set up outside seating. It is also limited by rain and weather. The landlord is on top of our head to pay the rent. As well electricity bill, water bill, insurance, worker's comp insurance, etc. .... there are routine bills to be paid along with employees. Mr Cuomo and the Mayor don’t understand the reality of life. People have to go out eat spend those extra few dollars for a family owned restaurants."
Luis Garcia, manager at Arriba Arriba, will go down fighting, but expressed well the struggle: "We've been fighting against anything and everything. Every day it’s been more difficult because of the uncertainty of what will be the next challenge. This is a matter of survive or give up. As a small business, we will keep going so we can pay bills, rent, utilities.
"It’s very hard. We get into a fight every single time we tell a customer that we cannot sell liquor without food. They think we are trying to take advantage. We are exhausted, so postponing dining indoors might give us some time. As always, we will do what we have to until the day that we have to give up."