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NYC restaurants make a cautious comeback after a devastating summer

NYC restaurants make a cautious comeback after a devastating summer
Tables are spaced allowing for proper social distancing as customers enjoy lunch on Wednesday at Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side.

Tables are spaced allowing for proper social distancing as customers enjoy lunch on Wednesday at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. | Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

New York

Not all customers were eager to rush back, and struggling restaurant owners said the move won’t be enough to get their industry back on its feet.

NEW YORK — Indoor dining reopened on Wednesday in New York City for the first time in more than six months — but not all customers were eager to rush back, and struggling restaurant owners said the move won’t be enough to get their industry back on its feet.

The return to indoor dining was greeted with a mix of hope from businesses battered by closures and restrictions, and trepidation as the city is already experiencing a spike in coronavirus infection rates. As with schools, which are also returning with reduced capacity this week, the return of inside dining to New York City is a major step out of the economic freeze wrought by the coronavirus. While hundreds of restaurants have already gone under, if they can stay open in some capacity through the winter, they may begin to restore a pillar of the city’s devastated tourism economy.

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The city and state pushed back the return of indoor dining, which had originally been scheduled for early July, out of fears it would fuel the spread of the virus. But restaurants are now authorized to operate inside at 25 percent of their normal capacity.

“The thing I’m happiest about today is that even before we had people sitting in here, it felt like a restaurant again. It’s just so sad, all these restaurants you go in with that apocalyptic view, like it’s a storage room now,” said Philip Ward, manager at the popular Crown Heights Mexican spot Chavela’s, who worked with his staff to measure six feet of distance between indoor tables and met with health department employees to make sure everything was in order.

“It’s a step toward normalcy. It’ll be good for the psyche, good for the people,” he said.

Chalon Eyo and her boyfriend Ty Salazar said they were were thrilled that they could sit indoors for lunch on a crisp afternoon. “Open them up,” Eyo said. “We can’t take this anymore.”

But other restaurants said they won’t offer indoor seating for now, due to health concerns or because it would not be worthwhile financially. And some who are opening their dining rooms said it won’t do much to help their bottom lines.

“It’s not going to be like it was before,” said Edward Vila, the manager of Ecuatoriana in Harlem.

Two tables were filled inside the restaurant Wednesday afternoon, but Vila said most customers aren’t interested in indoor dining, and Ecuatoriana has continued to get most of its business through takeout. Many patrons have also lost jobs or suffered financially during the pandemic, and can’t afford to eat out.

“They don’t feel comfortable to be sitting inside in the middle of this chaos that is going on,” he said. “Customers are coming back, but also we are in the middle of suffering and economic problems. For us to survive — rent, electricity — it’s very hard.”

New York City Hospitality Alliance head Andrew Rigie said many restaurants have been able to stay open for now only because of a state moratorium prohibiting evictions. “It’s scary to think about,” he said.

“They’re all teetering on the edge, they owe multiple months of missed back rent, they acquired huge amounts of debt, and it’s going to be a very long time before indoor dining resumes at a 100 percent occupancy and the customer base comes back,” Rigie said. “We’re still in the midst of the crisis with no end in sight and the industry has not been provided the adequate support from government.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said city inspectors would be out checking restaurants for compliance with health restrictions — taking a particularly aggressive approach in nine neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens where clusters of the coronavirus have emerged — and restaurants will face “immediate summonses” for violations.

“It’s crucial of course to bringing back more jobs and helping businesses to survive. But health and safety, as always, come first, so there will be very clear conditions and restrictions and rules,” he said. “There’s going to be a very rigorous inspection effort in those ZIP codes.”

In addition to the 25 percent capacity cap, restaurants are required to check customers’ temperatures at the door and collect contact information from one member of each party in case there are virus cases.

Bar seating is prohibited. Employees are required to wear masks, though they’re only mandatory for customers when they’re not seated at their tables.

The mayor is among the restaurant-goers who will be avoiding indoor dining for now.

“I personally just prefer outdoor dining, and as long as it’s available I would always choose it,” he told reporters Wednesday. “I’m going to keep doing that for the foreseeable future.”

The city has made its outdoor dining program permanent, allowing it to go on through the winter with the aid of heaters.

Hide Kato, owner of Crown Heights sushi shop Silver Rice, said he intends to keep outdoor seating for his patrons rather than rush to open up indoors. His tiny storefront would only be able to seat one or two diners inside under state guidelines.

“We are more worried about coronavirus in the winter time,” he said. “We might have a problem with customer safety, and my employees’ safety is my priority.”

Ellen Fishman, the owner of Prospect Heights eatery Amorina Cucina Rustica, said resuming indoor seating at this point “doesn’t make sense” for her restaurant.

“We’re such a small restaurant and indoor dining at 25 percent capacity is very little. It would require a lot of logistics,” she said. “I don’t believe many people would be comfortable with it and I don’t believe my staff would be comfortable.”

Her outdoor seating has been very popular, but it faces a hurdle as the weather gets colder: She purchased heat lamps that were supposed to arrive this weekend, but recently found out she won’t get them until January.

“They’re sold out everywhere,” Fishman said. “Restaurants are all competing against each other.”

Antonio Garcia, the owner of Mexicocina Agaveria in Prospect Heights, said he plans to resume indoor seating this weekend but the capacity restrictions mean it won’t benefit his business much. He’s also worried customers will be put off by requirements like temperature checks.

“I don’t want to make people uncomfortable, who might say, ‘whoa, why are you taking my temperature?’” he said.

The state has said it will review infection rates and decide whether to increase capacity to 50 percent in November.

A group of restaurant workers backed by the group One Fair Wage staged a strike to mark the first day of indoor dining, saying they should be paid the full minimum wage before tips if they have to put their health at risk by serving indoors.

Yess Giron said she was fired from her job at El Born restaurant in Greenpoint about a month ago after requesting accommodations for a disability, and following two incidents in which she confronted customers for not wearing their masks while inside.

“Servers like me have to enforce those rules, and the situation can become toxic,” she said. “These are all the obstacles that put the server or the bartender or the porter’s life in danger. We’re here getting paid $5 or $9 an hour risking our lives at this moment.”