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25% indoor dining does ‘nothing’ to save New York restaurants

Restaurant and bar owners in New York City have spoken out to say 25 percent indoor dining will do ‘nothing’ to save their struggling industry that was brought to its knees then kept ‘in the dark’ by officials for months on end. 

On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally announced that restaurants would be able to welcome diners inside again on September 30 but only on a maximum capacity of 25 percent and with strict rules in place like no bar service and a firm midnight close time. 

All welcomed the news and say that it is allowing them to finally prepare after months of silence from the government on when they might be able to start even attempting to make money again. But many say it will do nothing to help their struggling businesses which have been relying on PPP loans and handouts and are staring down the barrel of a tough next quarter with no further stimulus on the cards. 

What’s more, there’s been no solid information on if outdoor dining might be extended beyond October 31 which would give operators at least a chance to prepare spaces with heaters – which require permits, gas and weeks to order the heaters themselves. 

There is also the risk of spending money to prepare to reopen on a 25 percent capacity on September 30, only to have the government do a U-turn and ban it days beforehand, as it did in July.  

Robert Mahon, owner of Toro Loco and Broadstone and who is also affiliated with the Pig N Whistle Group, said the new rules would do ‘nothing to help’ anyone.

Even before the pandemic, he said, bars and restaurants in the city were struggling against increased rent and hikes in minimum wage.

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More than 1,000 restaurants and bars in New York City have had to close permanently after shutting their doors on March 16 and with little to no solid guidance from elected officials since then on how to survive 

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have held New York City’s restaurant industry to an entirely different standard than anywhere else in the state, giving restaurants little to no information about when and how they can reopen and doing nothing to find them financial help that actually addresses their needs, the owners say. One commented that the mayor ‘wouldn’t be receiving an invitation for dinner anytime soon’

‘No one is making money right now and October and November, when places run out of their PPP money, it will really be the cliff edge.


MARCH 16: All bars and restaurants close. To go cocktails and take-out food is the only thing allowed. 

MARCH 22: Senate passes CARES act which includes PPP for small businesses but makes no distinction for restaurants or bars which still weren’t allowed to be open 

APRIL 16: First round of PPP relief runs out  

JUNE 22:  NYC restaurants are allowed to start outdoor dining 

JULY 6: Cuomo and De Blasio suddenly pull indoor dining out of Phase 3 reopening with no plan for when it can happen

AUGUST: Infection rate in NYC goes beneath 1% 

SEPTEMBER 3: Restaurants file class action seeking $2billion in damages 

SEPTEMBER 9: Cuomo says indoor dining will be allowed

SEPTEMBER 30: 25% Indoor dining 

OCTOBER 31: Outdoor dining ends  

‘If you’re a multi-national company, sure, you’ll survive. But if you’re an independent operator it’s not the same. A lot of places are going to go under.’

He said that the restaurant industry had received no proper representation in government or been given special guidance to suit its needs.

‘We feel like we’ve had no voice,’ he said, adding there had been no lobby group or organization fighting for restaurants or bars’ right to business.

‘It’s a joke,’ Mahon added, saying ‘every bar and restaurant’ in New York City that is open right now is ‘operating at a loss’.

While no one in the industry wants to pack a space full of people again, Mahon said it was agonizing to watch other states and cities safely bring back higher capacities when New York – which was built on small, independent institutions – was kept shut. 

What would make matters easier, he said, would have been a July 1 tax break which never came, or a loosening on the rules of when and how to use PPP. 

Restaurants and bars were told they had to use it within eight weeks of it being issued which stopped many from using it too soon. 

‘You didn’t want to claim it if you weren’t open and then pay staff to be at home,’ Mahon said. 

The lack of transparency, planning, information or even willingness to speak with industry leaders has made the entire process ‘impossible’, he said.  

Ashwin Deshmukh, Partner and GM at Short Stories on Bowery, said he welcomed Wednesday’s announcement but that there hadn’t been enough planning or transparency from the city beforehand. 

Short Stories coped throughout the summer by adding colorful umbrellas, musicians and a new menu which drew in some business on dry days. 

He however highlighted the dangers of not knowing far enough in advance whether or not outdoor dining would be able to continue. 

Deshmukh gave the example of outdoor heaters that might have been able to carry trade through some of the early winter months.  

‘The types that our friends in Paris or Montreal use, the ones that actually work, are not approved by the FDNY. 

‘I was going to have a friend come down from Montreal to help me fit out the entire outdoor area here in a way that would work for New York, but there was not enough time.’  

He optimistically added that the new rules will allow private parties to become more accessible to smaller groups and stressed that no one in the industry to rush back to crowded spaces unless it is safe.  

 No one is making money right now… If you’re a multi-national company, sure, you’ll survive. But if you’re an independent operator it’s not the same. A lot of places are going to go under.

Robert Mahon, owner of Broadstone and Toro Loco  

Other challenges that might turf up are the appropriate permit for what’s known as a sidewalk cafe, and the amount of gas that would be needed. 

To have enough time to arrange either, restaurants need weeks, if not months. 

That level of foresight has been missing since the industry shut down, the owners say. 

‘There’s just been no visibility,’ Deshmukh said. 

As the rules stand, the month of October is the only one where a restaurant can offer outdoor dining and 25 percent indoor dining.  

After that, it will switch to entirely indoor model with the hope of scaling up to 50 percent in November, providing there are no major outbreaks. 

But restaurants have still not been shown the science, data or even criteria which might constitute another shutdown or scale-back.

Chinese Tuxedo on Doyers Street had a 130-seat dining room with a 100-person bar attached. With outdoor dining, it could only accommodate 28 people because of the narrow street it is situated on. Twenty-five percent will bring some relief but owner Eddy Buckingham said he wished he’d had plans sooner  

Chinese Tuxedo owner Eddy Buckingham (L) says he welcomed the indoor dining announcement but wishes he’d known sooner that October would be when he could reopen. Robert Mahon (R), owner of Broadstone and Toro Loco, said the industry had had ‘no voice’ in reopening plans or strategies

Eddy Buckingham, owner of Chinese Tuxedo on Doyers St, Peachy’s beneath it and the soon-to-open Tyger in SoHo, said he welcomed the announcement because it brought an end to ‘months of darkness’ but that more information was still needed.

‘There were months and months where we felt in the dark. The big disaster was when they said in-room dining was going to be in phase 3 and they gave us the guidelines, they did it every part of the state. 

Twenty-five percent is not sustainable, but it’s the start of a journey back. I take this as the first step in a long process, I just wish I’d known sooner. 

 Chinese Tuxedo owner Eddy Buckingham

‘I went and invested in all the stuff to make sure we were compliant, got contractors in to build Plexiglas screens between booths, I drafted a COVID protocol, brought teams in for training – all this cost money.  

‘People went off unemployment, people moved back to NYC under the assumption they’d work, then five days before the roll-out, they said phase 3 going on but indoor dining wont be part of it. 

‘That was five days before July 9, then we didn’t hear anything until Wednesday,’ he said. 

He said that it was unrealistic to consider the 25 percent capacity a ‘solution’, but that it was finally a step in the right direction. 

‘It’s not enough to make money but it’s part of a more substantial road map, at least now I know what the rules are. 

Short Stories on Bowery added colorful outdoor furniture throughout the summer but didn’t have enough time, nor did anyone, to plan for a possible outdoor winter season where heaters might be used to extend business. Restaurants don’t know if they’ll be allowed to operate outdoors after October 31 and without that knowledge, they can’t seek permits for heaters, obtain them or get all the gas they need to run them

Outdoor dining has allowed businesses to reopen but none are making money and many will soon run out of whatever they have left, the industry experts say

‘Twenty-five percent is not a fix. Nobody’s pretending it’s a fix and anyone that tells you it is, they’re just wrong. The industry, already, is a tough one. We run on super fine margin and we know it and that’s OK. 

‘Twenty-five percent is not sustainable, but it’s the start of a journey back. I take this as the first step in a long process, I just wish I’d known sooner.

It’s a step forward vs standing still or moving backwards, but we need to continue to demand support from the federal state and city government to give these small business owners a fighting chance of survival.

Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance  

‘There’s no perfect solution here and I don’t want to bang my drum…. I am impressed with the announcement. When it’s transparent we at least know what we’re dealing with. 

‘For three months, we were in the dark,’ he said, adding he ‘wouldn’t be inviting de Blasio for dinner anytime soon.’ 

Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York Hospitality Alliance, told the industry desperately needed help from the government. 

‘Pre-pandemic, it was extremely difficult for restaurants to survive at 100 percent occupancy so 25 percent, in no way, is going to save the industry. 

‘It’s a step forward vs standing still or moving backwards, but we need to continue to demand support from the federal state and city government to give these small business owners a fighting chance of survival.’ 

He said that it would have a lasting effect not only on the restaurants but also the vendors they use who have gone without customers for months. 

‘Think of the upstate farmers who the restaurants buy produce from, the local florist, the oyster farm or vineyard on Long Island. 

A sign is posted at a restaurant on July 28. More than 1,000 have been forced to close permanently 

‘They need restaurants and bars and clubs to come back in order for their industry sector to be saved. 

‘Office workers who have been told you don’t have to come back until at least 2021 – what are we going to do to support the coffee where people get them? The sandwich place? The happy hour place? When are the 70million tourists going to come back?’ he said. 

He is pushing for a bill called The Restaurant Act which would separate restaurants from other businesses receiving PPP and allow them to survive.

‘Operators have been financially devastated. This is an extraordinarily challenging time and their frustration, their anger is valid. 

‘What we’re trying to do is do everything we can to fight at all levels of government to get as many different policies in place to help as many small businesses as possible,’ he said. 

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer will soon submit the Restaurants Act 2020 to ask for specific relief to restaurants around the country of $120billion that will help them survive. 

It would only give relief to restaurants that do not belong to a chain of more than 20 locations. 

New York City is now the last major city in the world that is still not allowing outdoor dining. 


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