Restaurants

'What is the plan?' NYC restaurant owners plead for clarity on when indoor dining can resume

Key Points
  • Restaurateurs in New York City are pleading for clarity on when they will be allowed to reopen indoor dining as the coronavirus-related prohibition continues. 
  • "The restaurant industry is going to die as we know it in this city," Harlem restaurant owner Melba Wilson told CNBC.
  • "What we would like to know is, what is the plan?" added Nate Adler, who founded the Brooklyn restaurant Gertie. 
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Restaurateurs in New York City are pleading for clarity on when they will be allowed to offer indoor dining, warning of dire economic consequences as the monthslong prohibition drags on during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"The restaurant industry is going to die as we know it in this city. How can we not, at least, open at a small percentage? Even 50%. If not, we're going to lose a lot of restaurants in this city," Melba Wilson said Wednesday on CNBC's "Power Lunch."  

Wilson — the founder of Melba's, which serves up American comfort food in Harlem — acknowledged the health concerns from policymakers in a state that was once the epicenter of the U.S.' Covid-19 outbreak. But she questioned the different policies on indoor dining in nearby parts of New York state, such as Westchester County and Long Island. 

She noted the percentage of positive coronavirus tests in New York City has hovered right around 1% for much of August. "We have not just met the metrics. We have sustained the metrics," Wilson said. 

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Aug. 19 called it "just absurd" to compare New York City to other regions of the state, saying they vary in overall population and density. And the coronavirus outbreak in Westchester County, for example, was never as intense as it was in New York City, he contended.

"They are two totally different environments, and are we more careful in New York City because of those factors? Of course we are. It would be negligent not to be," said Cuomo, who possesses ultimate authority on when to permit indoor dining in New York City.

Restaurants in New York City were allowed to begin offering outdoor dining in late June as the state proceeded through its phased economic reopening; officials also have made it easier for restaurants to expand seating onto sidewalks and into streets. 

But plans to allow limited indoor dining were paused indefinitely in early July, just days before it was set to return. At the time, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio referenced rising Covid-19 cases in other parts of the U.S. that he said were linked to indoor restaurants and bars. 

Cuomo said on July 1 that it would be on hold "until the facts change and it is prudent to open. At this point, it isn't prudent." Cuomo last week also indicated that expanded outdoor dining may be put on pause as the weather turns cold in the fall and winter. 

Critics of de Blasio and Cuomo say there has not been enough transparency about the set of facts that will be required to reopen indoor dining, especially as fall approaches and the outdoor service that has been a financial lifeline may also be in jeopardy. 

"The last thing that we want is a second surge" of coronavirus infections, Nate Adler, who founded Gertie, an all-day cafe in Brooklyn, said on "Power Lunch." "We do have to be super careful about that because that is what is really going to put the nail in the coffin for a lot of restaurants." 

"That being said, we've been given no direction and no guidance and no notice on any of the decisions that have been made thus far by the mayor's office, by the governor's office," he added. "What we would like to know is, what is the plan?" 

'Fight for relief' 

Adler alluded to comments made earlier this week by de Blasio, who appeared to suggest it may be 2021 before indoor dining is permitted again. "If folks miss the theater, if they miss the indoor dining, those things will be back. They'll be back next year at some point," de Blasio said, according to the New York Post

"If that is actually going to be the case, then we need to know and we need to fight for relief," said Adler. 

Wilson said the economic burden of not being able to offer indoor dining is felt not only by restaurant owners, it extends to the hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers who collectively make up an industry that is "the fabric of this city," she said. 

In February, before the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life, roughly 324,000 people worked at bars and restaurants in New York City, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In July, that number had fallen to just under 162,000, a decline of about 50%. 

New York City had an overall unemployment rate of 20% in July, up from 4.3% last year, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Labor released Tuesday. 

"The mayor has dined with us here at Melba's, so we know that he cares. He knows the importance of this. He knows that it's important for my employees to know, how are they going to pay their bills? How are we going to pay our bills?" Wilson said.

"The rent bills are still coming in. ... We have 100% of the bills, fixed costs that have to be paid, however, while we're getting 20% of the income," she added. 

When asked for comment, a representative from de Blasio's office directed CNBC to comments made last week by the mayor's senior advisor for public health, Dr. Jay Varma, who stressed that transmission of the coronavirus is more likely indoors than outdoors.

"And we know any place where you can't wear face protection is riskier than a place where you can, and of course when people are eating and drinking they can't wear that type of facial protection," Varma said, according to the New York Business Journal.

In an email to CNBC, Cuomo spokesman Will Burns noted that the governor relaxed rules on alcoholic drinks for carryout and delivery to support restaurants, as well as established a $100 million fund for small business loans. He also stressed that New York state would "continue to follow the science" as it navigates the economic reopening.  

"Our phased reopening is focused solely on protecting public health," he wrote. 

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