Breaking news update, Sunday, March 15, 10:10 p.m.: The mayor announced he would be shutting down restaurants and bars to anything but take-out and delivery.
After a Saturday night with many restaurants and bars filled with people, more government officials are calling for a shutdown of public spaces to help curb the spread of COVID-19 — including closing restaurants and bars.
But as of Sunday evening, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have not ordered a closure. Cuomo said during an MSNBC interview that he is “aggressively recommending” that businesses voluntarily shutter. “If you don’t need to be open, don’t be open,” he said.
At an evening press conference, de Blasio said that the fire department, the NYC sheriff’s office, and the Department of Buildings would be “cracking down” on businesses that aren’t abiding by the 50 percent rules. Fines could start at $400 and go up from there, and officials will not leave the premises of a business until it’s down to 50 percent. He also did not rule out arrests.
“As enforcement ramps up and word spreads that this is serious, that will help lock things down further,” de Blasio said. He added that he would be in meetings tonight to continue conversations around the possibility of a shutdown. “I cannot guarantee bars and restaurants will still be open in a few days,” he said.
It follows a day of mounting pressure to formally shut down non-essential businesses. The governors of Illinois and Ohio have both ordered a statewide shutdowns, while Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the California city’s bars would close today and has suggested dine-in restaurants would also close soon. D.C. has shuttered all nightclubs.
Locally, City Council speaker Corey Johnson, Councilman Brad Ladner of Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, and Comptroller Scott Stringer all called for closures. Councilman Mark Levine, who chairs the Council Committee on Health, said that many venues were violating the new state order requiring businesses to reduce capacity in half. He too called for a shutdown, under the hashtag #shutdownNYC, pointing to the health of staff, who have no choice but to show up.
Meanwhile, on Saturday night in nearby Hoboken, Mayor Ravinder Bhalla banned all restaurants from having dine-in customers and closed bars without food all together, also implementing a 10 p.m. curfew for residents. The development came about after a person who got into a bar fight in Hoboken waited more than 30 minutes for an ambulance due to a strained health system, Bhalla wrote in a press release.
Shortly after the announcement, City Council speaker Johnson criticized the mayor’s decision to keep bars and restaurants open, reiterating his call to shut down all bars. “People are not abiding by these restrictions and we don’t have enough enforcement capability,” he tweeted.
The calls for closures follows a whirlwind week, where the number of confirmed cases has exponentially grown. The city banned gatherings of over 500 people as of Friday night, leading to a slew of event cancellations, and mandated that all restaurants and bars — many of which were already experiencing a freefall in sales over the past week — had to operate at 50 percent capacity.
Though most people who contract the virus will only show minor symptoms, as the virus spreads, the likelihood rises for vulnerable populations to contract the disease. The crisis is also already impacting on the city’s hospital systems.
Lots of restaurants and restaurant groups have closed, from big ones like Union Square Hospitality Group and Momofuku to smaller ones like the team behind hip neighborhood restaurants Hart’s, Cervo’s, and the Fly. But many bars and restaurants — some facing outstanding bills and rent — have said they feel no choice but to stay open to keep paying staff.
Measures to soften the economic blows for both businesses and hundreds of hospitality workers now faced with unemployment are still in the early stages. U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who implored people to stop crowding businesses on Sunday, said on Sunday that the federal government needs to offer solutions for unemployed workers immediately, and Johnson tweeted on Sunday that the city should be suspending fees, penalties, and taxes to help businesses “keep cash.”
“They should have just made a final decision,” Matthew Roff, the owner of Brooklyn bar Franklin Park, told Eater on Saturday.
As more photos of spaces of crowded spaces spread online, restaurants and bars also face scrutiny for not appropriately enforcing the rule — although some owners say getting people to stay away from each other has been difficult. Franklin Park went viral over a photo in which it appeared that the bar was not operating at half capacity on Friday night. In fact, Roff had posted the new mandate in the bar and had been taking head counts throughout the night; he said they could not control where people stood.
A tipster sent Eater a photo of City Vineyard, City Winery’s Pier 26 space, showing a crowd just after 5 p.m. on Saturday. But the company — which has implemented measures like posting signs asking people to respect space — says customers all flocked to the perimeter of the pier to take in the river view around that time. In response, City Vineyard has adjusted the table set-up and will not be letting clientele move closer together for Sunday’s business.
“Our highly visible location, while normally a blessing, has set us up for increased scrutiny in this scenario and we are working hard to do our best to support our people and our public health efforts,” a spokesperson said in a statement, adding that they’re staying open to maintain jobs for staff.
At a Saturday afternoon press conference, de Blasio resisted shutting down businesses — saying that it’s a day-by-day and hour-by-hour decision-making process, balancing economic impact with health needs. However, he added that “I don’t want to see a bar where everyone’s crowded up against each other, and we have to step in in that case.”
Saturday night, the director of the Office of Nightlife and teams from the fire department were out in the city to make sure people understood the rules, the mayor’s office said. But details on enforcement have been unclear since the half-capacity mandate was announced Thursday.
There were 329 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in New York City as of Sunday, March 15, at 5 p.m., according to the mayor’s office, and 729 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across New York, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus research center. There have been five confirmed deaths in New York from the virus, according to the mayor’s office, including an elderly Brooklyn woman with an underlying medical condition, and a 64-year-old who tested positive for the virus and had underlying health problems.
With additional reporting by Ryan Sutton
This post has been updated with more calls from city officials for a shutdown, plus details from City Winery.
This post has been updated with more recent confirmed COVID-19 case numbers.