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Cafe D’Alsace, boarded up
Cafe D’Alsace on the Upper East Side, boarded up
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A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding New York’s Reopening Plan

The city’s restaurants will only reopen under a set of guidelines set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Here’s what to know about the plan.

New York City officially began its limited opening of the economy on June 8, having met all of the state’s criteria for doing so, but the city’s full-service restaurant economy, which employed nearly 170,000 people before the shutdown, and which feeds millions every year, will still need to wait. Outdoor dining won’t officially debut until later in June, while indoor restaurant service likely won’t begin until the second-week of July.

In brief, any part of the state that wanted to reopen needed to meet seven benchmarks related to infections, hospital capacity, and testing, per an online chart that New York updates on a daily basis. As of a few weeks ago, New York City hit just three of those criteria, but on June 7, the tally rose to a perfect seven, following an improvement in the hospital bed and contact tracing situation. It was the last region of New York to reopen.

The initial opening of the city’s economy will involve so-called “phase one” businesses that carry a low risk of infection, such as construction and curbside retail. Outdoor dining is classified phase two, while indoor dining, which is believed to carry a higher rate of infection than al fresco eating, is phase three. At least two weeks must elapse between each phase, per a state report. So even after the city meets phase one criteria, outdoor dining won’t return until June 22 at the earliest, while indoor dining won’t begin until July 8.

New York State Reopening Criteria

State Criteria Goal Met
State Criteria Goal Met
14-day decline in net hospitalizations Yes
14-day decline in hospital deaths Yes
New hospitalizations per 100,000 residents Yes
Over 30 percent of beds available Yes
Over 30 percent of ICU beds available Yes
Sufficient diagnostic testing per 100,000 residents Yes
Sufficient contact tracing capacity Yes

In the meantime, here’s an explainer as to why the phasing in schemes are necessary, what benchmarks the city is hitting (or missing), and what type of state rules restaurants might expect before rebooting.

Why is there a need for health guidelines and economic phasing in?

To ensure that the health care system has enough capacity to withstand a surge in infections before businesses start to open, and to ensure that the state can wind down the economy quickly enough — or delay further reopenings — if there’s an uptick in virus cases. This gradual process is designed to protect lives and prevent a larger financial fallout if the reopening effort stalls. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House’s novel coronavirus task force, told the U.S. Senate earlier in May that opening up too soon could be catastrophic. “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” he said.

Globally, some countries like Lebanon and South Korea have reimposed restrictions after easing shutdown measures resulted in a spike in infections.

What are the benchmarks for reopening in regards to new COVID-19 infections?

First, a region must experience a decline in deaths over two weeks. Second, a region must see a decline in net hospitalizations over 14 days — which means the state is looking for a downward trajectory of people remaining in hospitals due to COVID-19, an indication that folks are healing. It’s a single figure, representing a total number of people in the hospital due to the virus in a particular region.

Third, the state is looking at the number of new hospitalizations in relation to a region’s population. New York’s criteria requires that a region fall under two new daily hospitalizations per every 100,000 residents. This final requirement is key because it ensures that even if overall hospitalizations are going down, the city can’t reopen if this separate metric is high, as it’s an indication that there’s still an aggressive infection rate with respect to the size of a given city or region.

Does New York City meet the infection guidelines?

Yes. The city has hit the declining death rate and net hospitalizations criteria. It also passes the new hospitalization test, which has fallen to a rate of 1.03 people per 100,000 residents, down from 3.55 in May.

What about guidelines around hospital capacity? And why does it matter?

Regions must have at least 30 percent of their hospital beds available to reopen, and at least 30 percent of their available intensive care unit beds. The reason for this is simple: New York wants its healthcare system to be able to physically handle a spurt in cases when stay-at-home orders are lifted. That requirement is particularly vital for ICU beds, because, according to a state report on the reopening effort, just under a third of hospitalizations for COVID-19 require critical care.

Does New York City meet these capacity requirements right now?

Yes. The city has 31 percent of hospital beds available, and it meets the ICU bed criteria, with 34 percent of beds remaining.

What about the testing guidelines?

Testing is a “lynchpin” of the effort to control the spread of the virus, per the governor’s office, as it’s the clearest way to identify who is infected. The state will require a rate of 30 tests monthly per any region’s 1,000 residents. Regions will also have 30 “contract tracers” for every 100,000 residents. Contract tracers, who are paid professional health investigators, interview positive patients remotely, advising them to quarantine, doing the same with people who have come into contact with positive individuals, and keeping in touch with all contacts via text to check for symptoms. This practice is believed to be a vital part of effective virus management in China, South Korea, and China.

Does New York City meet the testing guidelines?

Yes. It’s well over the threshold on testing, and has met the contact tracer guidelines, Cuomo announced on June 7. Mayor Bill De Blasio said on May 26 that the city had hired more than 1,700 contact tracers, who began work in early June.

Are there any guidelines to help determine whether a region can move from one phase to the next?

The state doesn’t have a definitive checklist for moving from phase one to phase two or three, but regional oversight teams will continue to monitor all seven criteria, according to the governor’s office. New York will particularly focus on the rate of infection, which can be assessed via a regional monitoring dashboard, and whether industries are meeting published reopening guidelines. The regional oversight teams can slow down or shut down reopenings if indicators are “problematic.”

How long will it take for restaurant dining rooms to open after phase one is achieved?

At least two weeks must pass in between each phase. Since outdoor dining is phase two, it would take at least 14 days after the city meets the initial criteria to see the return of sit-down dining on sidewalks or streets. Indoor dining, which is considered riskier, is phase three, which would take an additional two weeks. Since construction businesses launched in New York on June 8, outdoor dining wouldn’t begin until June 22, while indoor service wouldn’t begin until July 8, at the earliest.

The phase-in periods are also minimum time frames. It’s possible the regional council will delay things further if there’s an uptick in infections or hospitalization rates after the first two phases are implemented.

Do we know anything yet about the reopening guidelines that restaurants might have to adopt?

The state issued criteria for outdoor dining in early June. Those guidelines include social distancing measures, required daily health screenings for staffers, the possibility of temperature monitoring for employees, and tight restrictions on communal tables. Guidelines for indoor dining haven’t been issued, but they should come out soon as certain upstate regions could begin phase three as early as June 12.

Cuomo’s New York Forward Reopening Advisory Board, which is tasked with develop industry specific guidelines, was formed in late April, with Tren’ness Woods-Black of Sylvia’s, Andrew Rigie of the New York Hospitality Alliance, and Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group all on board.

But other states are already reopening restaurants. What are they doing?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose state has only suffered from a fraction of the COVID-19 deaths as New York, published a very long and specific set of guidelines, calling for shutting down bar areas, screening both workers and patrons, and even curtailing tableside dining. Numerous other states have cut occupancy limits.

How are restaurants in New York City feeling about reopening?

Business owners are eager to start bringing in revenue, but many restaurateurs don’t want to open at restricted capacity and would prefer to allow more diners into spaces. This is all the more true in the summertime, typically a slower time for many restaurants, and doubly so this year with scores of patrons working from home.

A survey released on May 14 by the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a group that advocates on behalf of owners, showed that two-thirds of restaurants would need at least 70 percent occupancy to attempt reopening. Meyer of USHG told Bloomberg that he probably wouldn’t open his full service dining rooms at restaurants like the Modern or Gramercy Tavern until there’s a vaccine.

Will restaurants be able to survive any mandates?

That’s a question whose answer will determine the fate of over 325,000 city jobs in food and beverage. Statewide, the industry reportedly lost nearly $2 billion in revenue in March alone. So the stakes are high, and there are still many uncertainties about reopening. When phase three is eventually reached, it’s not clear if diners and restaurant staff will feel comfortable enough to go back to dining rooms, though outdoor dining may alleviate some (but not all) of those concerns.

What do experts think will make diners feel more comfortable?

A vaccine or a known treatment, ideally, and while a number of those are in trials, Fauci said in Senate testimony that they won’t be ready in the immediate future. “The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of bridge too far,” he said.

Some also say that without more rapid and widespread testing, many New Yorkers will be wary of returning to hanging out in restaurants, especially considering asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people can transmit the virus.

Mayor de Blasio announced last week that the city was beginning large scale, free, asymptomatic testing, with individual results expected within 48 hours. “All New Yorkers should get tested now, whether or not you have symptoms or are at increased risk,” according to the city’s COVID-19 website. The city also encourages re-testing according to a variety of factors, including for those who have “spent time in a large crowd,” and for those who have had exposure to those with symptoms. Insurance is not required for those tests.

Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, told NPR’s Morning Edition that states should be ramping up testing as they relax social distancing measures. “The moment you relax, the number of cases will start climbing. And therefore, the number of tests you need to keep your society, your state from having large outbreaks will also start climbing.”

This article has been updated throughout to reflect new health statistics, a change in how the state assesses the contract tracing criteria, details on how restaurateurs are planning to reopen, information on outdoor dining and asymptomatic testing. This article has also been updated to show that the city has entered phase one.

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