At the third and final presidential debate on Thursday night, the state of the NYC restaurant economy came up as the candidates discussed the economy and business operations during the pandemic. President Donald Trump, who called for a loosening of current restrictions for restaurants — which in New York City, presently includes a 25 percent limit on indoor dining and a maximum capacity of 50 people in indoor spaces in most areas — described New York City as a “ghost town,” and went on to suggest that the city’s restaurants are “dying” due to the current coronavirus restrictions in place.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden argued for more aid to help businesses access resources that would allow them to open while following regulatory COVID-19 precautionary measures, like setting up plexiglas dividers between tables at restaurants. Trump responded by saying that “restaurants are dying” and argued that the public health safety measures like plexiglas shouldn’t be required for restaurants to operate.
“These are businesses with no money,” Trump said. “Putting up plexiglas is unbelievably expensive. And it’s not the answer. You’re going to sit there in a cubicle wrapped around with plastic? These are businesses that are dying, Joe. You can’t do that to people.”
In accordance with federal health safety guidance, the NYC Health Department has laid out regulations that restaurants are required to follow in order to operate during the pandemic: In addition to capacity regulations, rules currently include temperature checks for all customers at the door, and collecting contact tracing information from a member of each dining party. Physical barriers like plexiglas dividers are recommended, but not legally required, in areas where physical distancing is not possible, like at the cash register.
Twitter users were quick to rebut Trump’s claims that the city is empty, including Bravo TV host Andy Cohen, who wrote, “currently in NYC. Not ghost town.” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman added, “traffic in Brooklyn and Manhattan says otherwise.”
Many others noted the lively outdoor dining scenes they’ve seen in recent weeks. One user, Sinead Keegan, noted that a few weeks ago, she was quoted an hour-long wait to dine at a table outdoors. Social media influencer Mike Tommasiello wrote that “it’s literally impossible to get a reservation at a restaurant in NYC on any given night so please don’t tell me it’s dead.” Several others responded to a hypothetical-ish question posted by actor Patton Oswalt, sharing lively scenes from neighborhoods like the East Village and including videos of live street music and people eating outdoors.
Others noted how several restaurants had invested in plexiglass barriers, rebutting Trump’s claim that plexiglass “was not the answer.” And others still commended the city for opening gradually compared to other parts of the country.
New York City was the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdowns went into place in March, and was initially considered the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. To date, more than 19,000 people have died from the virus in NYC, and more than 250,000 New Yorkers have contracted it since March.
Still, in subsequent months, the city was able to get the virus under control compared to other parts of the country, significantly reducing its case positivity rate as a result of several lockdown measures — including the continued shutdown of indoor dining. In recent weeks, the city has once again noted an uptick in COVID-19 cases in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken a zoned shutdown approach, and recently reopened parts of Queens when cases stabilized. NYC is not out of the woods, but positivity rates here still remain low compared to other parts of the country.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1,000 restaurants have shut down citywide due to the business downturn. Many more continue to close on a weekly basis, but restaurateurs continue to cite fixed costs like rent as the reason for closure, not the coronavirus-related restrictions in place.
At the time that indoor dining returned in September, many restaurateurs said they would not open their dining rooms, citing safety concerns for their workers and diners. Instead, many in the industry have called for the federal government to pass another coronavirus stimulus that would allow restaurants to operate safely without the imminent threat of closure and would not force restaurant staffers to return to work. Trump’s government, however, has stalled on doing just that.