CNBC Disruptor 50

Can New York reopen indoor dining safely? Here is what coronavirus, restaurant experts say

Key Points
  • New York is reopening indoor dining in restaurants at 25% capacity on Wednesday, as Covid-19 cases rise in the the city.
  • Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the level of risk will relate to specific safety steps restaurants take and restaurant setting, but he cautioned the risk of a superspreader event remains.
  • Restaurant mogul Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group partnered with biometric screening company CLEAR to provide safety technology for employee Covid-19 monitoring.
USHG partners with CLEAR to help employees and indoor diners stay safe
USHG partners with CLEAR to help employees and indoor diners stay safe

New York City is reopening indoor dining at restaurants at 25% capacity on Wednesday, but many remain concerned about safety. Covid-19 cases in New York have been rising again and the colder weather season is also expected to result in coronavirus spikes. Restaurants can manage safety concerns, according to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA Commissioner, but it will come down to individual restaurant decisions and settings.

"The risks related to indoor dining relate to how many people are crowded into a space and setting," Gottlieb told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday morning. "Some are safer than others," Gottlieb said, adding that air filtration systems and air flow vary, and the risk of aerosol spread of Covid-19 cannot be ignored.

"We can get something that approximates an aerosol spread and superspreader event, so it really is going to be variable from restaurant to restaurant," the former FDA Commissioner said.

Gottlieb said he does think focus on reopening institutions like schools is more important than reopening restaurants, because the risks are high and while there are economic benefits, there are less social benefits. "I would be focused on schools over purely entertainment settings, not withstanding hardship to restaurant owners," he said.

Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group is among the New York City-based companies reopening restaurants on Wednesday for indoor dining at 25% capacity. Many diners are concerned about the health risks they will be taking, but Meyer also is focused on keep restaurant employees safe.

Union Square Hospital Group has partnered with biometric screening company CLEAR to monitor employee health at his dining establishments.

CLEAR, which was created after 9/11 as a way to improve airport security, has created an app called Health Pass that Meyer's company will use for all employees as part of daily safety health checks. The CLEAR app initially verifies identity by uploading an identifying document and asking a user to snap a selfie. Before entering the restaurant, employees open Health Pass, verify their identity with a selfie, and then answer a series of health survey questions. A CLEAR kiosk in the restaurant will offer a temperature check and scan the employee QR code to gather health insights and confirm the person can safely enter, but it does not access an individual's private health details. The National Hockey League used the same technology in its recent Stanley Cup Playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton.

CLEAR ranked No. 39 on the 2020 CNBC Disruptor 50 list.

Meyer, whose firm had to lay off thousands of workers early in the coronavirus as restaurants shut down,  said the transition from sidewalk dining — which three of his restaurants have been doing for many weeks already — is a phase of Covid reopening that, "Were concerned about it, but also really excited."

"We want to do it in the safest possible way ... in a way to ensure employees it is safe to come back to work," Meyer told CNBC's "Squawk Box" about the reopening plan and the CLEAR deal.

"It helps making sure employees know we are vigilant about it every day," Meyer said.

New York City restaurants are reopening to indoor dining on Sept. 30 at 25% capacity, and "safety is the new hospitality" according to restaurant mogul and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group Danny Meyer.
Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

CLEAR CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker said the current Covid situation is a compounded version of what it faced after 9/11 when airports were shut down. Now airports have remained opened but everything else has shut down, and the relevance of identity and identity-based solutions for health monitoring is much larger.

The CLEAR deal is one aspect of a broader Covid-19 safety plan that Union Square Hospitality Group is hoping will lessen diners' fears.

Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants have upgraded air filtration and purification systems to introduce both UV lighting which purifies the HVAC unit and filters, as well as bi-polar ionization technology that releases positive and negative ions into the air, causing particles including bacteria, viruses and mold spores to cluster together and which can then be captured by filters like MERV 8.

Meyer's company also reconfigured dining rooms with Rockwell Group — which is working with other restaurants as well on design changes relating to Covid safety — in terms of layouts, guest flow, and team member movements. It has added plexiglass partitions to host stands to minimize contact upon arrival and signage throughout the space. Diners will also have their temperature taken and be asked to scan a QR code upon arrival that is linked to a contact form.

Lindsey J. Leininger, a clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and one of the leaders of the Dear Pandemic public health campaign, told the New York Times she is concerned about restaurant workers breathing the same indoor air as patrons and then having to commute back to what for many may be multi-generational households. "If one of them gets exposed in a restaurant, they could bring that exposure back to their grandmother with diabetes," she told the Times, adding, "I cannot tell you that indoor dining is safe. Period. Full stop."

New York City Covid-19 cases spiking

Cases of Covid-19 have recently risen in New York City, but Gottlieb said that is not yet a major concern.

"New York City does have control right now and we can't draw broad conclusions from the spike we've seen," he said. "It is a worrisome sign, but not a trend yet, so New York still has some time to figure it out."

But the coronavirus expert did say that the indoor dining reopening is coming ahead of what should be a worse Covid-19 season. "I think the trend is up in the fall and winter," Gottlieb said. He added that some cities will be able to hold onto gains with vigilant tracking and mask wearing. but there will be an uptick.

The pandemic has devastated the restaurant industry nationwide, and in New York City specifically, where as many as one-third of the near-3,000 small businesses that had permanently closed by August, according to a New York Times' estimate, were bars and restaurants.

Meyer said in a tweet after New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the reopening plan, "25% is a low start, but restaurants at last have clarity, without which, future planning/hiring was impossible. We've proven we can keep one another safe and we'll do this well."

More than six months after states implemented stay-at-home orders, over 100,000 bars and restaurants — or 15% of all eating and drinking establishments — have permanently closed, according to National Restaurant Association estimates. The trade group forecasts $240 billion in restaurant sales will be lost this year to the pandemic.