Devastated by pandemic, NYC restaurant owners call on government for indoor dining

By KELLY MCCARTHY, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — New York City is home to some of the most diverse cuisines and talented chefs and restaurant owners in the world. But in the wake of the ongoing global pandemic, restaurants that have barely managed to keep kitchens operational are worried as they prepare to weather the fall and winter months without a plan for indoor dining.

As restaurants continue to expand and contract to fit the ever-changing requirements for safely serving food — both curbside for takeaway or at socially distanced outdoor tables — industry leaders have called for an immediate plan for the return of indoor dining service in New York City.

New York, New Jersey restaurateurs respond to indoor dining delays
The New York City Hospitality Alliance, a nonprofit organization that represents tens of thousands of restaurants and nightlife establishments across the five boroughs, assembled a panel of restaurateurs for a virtual press conference on Wednesday to demand action from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Blair Papagni, owner of Anella in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, spoke about the toll brought on by the pandemic and the frustration she felt after she was forced to close her other longtime restaurant, Jimmy’s Diner, after 13 years.

“Back in March, when we had to close and some of my staff looked at me and said, ‘Are we going to close, close?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not, there’s no way we’re closing. This is going to be a bump in the road and we’ll reopen,'” she said. “And unfortunately for us, looking at an 11-month lease, a liquor license that we had to renew and looking at what was a real lack of a clear path to any sort of indoor dining — there was no way for us to stay open.”

Papagni is now turning her lived experience into a message for the government to act.

“Having to close a business I really loved has motivated me to advocate for government support to keep my other restaurant, Anella in Greenpoint, and my friends’ businesses open,” she told ABC News. “I don’t want any other employer to have to lay off their staff, any other owner to have to see their dream disappear like mine did.”

As the sun begins to set on the summer outdoor dining season, restaurant owners on the call tackled the tough question of what comes once it gets cold outside, when they are unable to accommodate outdoor diners, prompting the larger issue of layoffs, even more revenue loss and eventual closures.

“We all know the realities of what we need to make in order to pay rent, pay our purveyors and our staff,” Papagni said on the call. “The most difficult part of looking at anything past November is the idea of having to lay off my staff again. For me, and I think for all of us, that would really be devastating.”

After meeting a list of health metrics, indoor dining at reduced capacity was initially supposed to reopen at the beginning of July during New York’s phase 4 of reopening, but Cuomo delayed the decision without saying when that day might come down the line.

“At the moment it seems like indoor dining in other areas of New York has gone successfully and I think in New York City, the city that beat back the virus through diligence and sacrifice, we can also be successful,” Papagni told ABC News. “If restaurant and bar owners are not given the ability to move indoors at a reduced capacity or provided with financial support then we will see many more owners have to make the tough decision that I did: turn in the keys to prevent going further into debt.”

She continued, “Having seating that is completely dependent upon the weather makes staffing and provisioning very difficult and often results in our extremely small profit margin disappearing completely.”

Another longtime local restaurant maven, Tren’ness Woods-Black, owner of Sylvia’s in Harlem — which she said has been the largest minority employer in the borough for 40 years — echoed the same calls for the government to guide the industry that works on such small margins.

“There is simply no way that we, being the greatest city for dining in the world, can go on not knowing when we’re going to open,” she said. “We’re not asking to open tomorrow, we’re asking for the simplest thing — a plan.”

Woods-Black told ABC News, “If there isn’t a plan for resuming dining soon, then the winter season will be a miss, and it will be a catastrophic miss for the majority of restaurants.”

“There is no way most restaurants would be able to continue to pay rent and taxes and keep up with all other expenses. Restaurants become very strapped when they don’t have cash. We’re in the home stretch of closing out the year. Not having any cash reserves makes it almost impossible to plan for the next year,” Woods-Black said.

But like other restaurant owners in New York City, she has watched restaurants in other cities succeed with innovative, safe and socially distant indoor dining measures.

“If other restaurants are resuming indoor dining right next door to the city, and there’s been no spikes in the virus and the same indoor occupancy rates would apply to us, then it really shouldn’t matter what it looks like outside my restaurant’s doors,” she reasoned.

Without a chance to reopen their doors, even at limited capacities, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to deliver blows beyond the walls of these restaurants to the surrounding community.

“One of the biggest challenges that we weren’t considering was the magnitude and how far-reaching this crisis would be,” Woods-Black said. “We have a lot of elderly guests who would eat with us for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and it wasn’t just nourishment they were seeking because it was also really part of their mental health routine.”

“The restaurant was a home to them,” she added. “Being closed, these same people can no longer sit in their seat or dine at their table. They lost a home and that impacts people.”

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYCHA, reinforced the call to action by citing the proven success by the city’s eateries that have continued to follow mandates in order to slow the spread of the virus.

“Despite the fact that the city exceeds and sustains the metrics that have allowed restaurants throughout the rest of the state to reopen, government leaders have still yet to provide any guidance on when small business owners, workers and customers can expect indoor dining to return,” Rigie said. “Our industry’s survival over the next several months depends on government immediately developing and implementing a plan that allows restaurants in New York City to safely reopen indoors like our counterparts everywhere else in the state.”

On top of the call for development and implementation of indoor dining plans, the group of restaurant owners renewed the urgency for relief for restaurants across all five boroughs, including extending the moratorium on evictions, extending the suspension of personal liability guarantees in leases, pausing commercial rent taxes, providing rent relief and extending small businesses cash grants.

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