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Owner of Pasta Hit Lilia Under Fire for Downplaying COVID-19’s Severity

The restaurateur told staff that there was “less than 1 in a million chance for any of us on this email to have our lives at risk by this virus”

Here is a Look at Missy Robbins’ Lilia, Opening Tonight in Brooklyn
Lilia in Williamsburg
Nick Solares/Eater
Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

Reformed finance bro Sean Feeney, who co-owns Brooklyn pasta hotspots Lilia and Misi alongside chef Missy Robbins, reportedly downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 crisis in New York — including a note in which he incorrectly assured staff that the likelihood of virus infection was far lower than what the local health department data shows.

Business Insider reports that the restaurateur told staff in an email on May 14 that there was “less than 1 in a million chance for any of us on this email to have our lives at risk by this virus,” according to communication reviewed by the publication. Feeney told laid-off staff that they had to remain “patient and smart” amid the ongoing pandemic.

Feeney was looking at an analysis of national CDC data when he cited that figure, he explained to Business Insider. The local numbers for NYC are much more dire, as Business Insider points out: One out of 526 city residents have died from confirmed or probable cases of the virus so far, and one out of every 167 people have been hospitalized, according to NYC Health Department figures.

Sean Feeney and Stu Edison attend Friends of the Children New York hosts An Evening with Friends at The Grand Hyatt New York on April 6, 2017 in New York City.
Sean Feeney (left) and Stu Edison at an event in NYC
Photo by Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Aside from the misguided staff communication, Feeney has also come under fire for comments that he made in a restaurant industry roundtable meeting with President Trump on Monday. In the meeting, he told Trump that “we view you as one of us,” speaking for the other restaurateurs gathered around the table.

The phrasing drew some criticism in food world circles on social media, as Trump has not shown support towards immigrant communities and undocumented workers — core segments of the restaurant industry — amid the novel coronavirus crisis. Trump recently moved to block new green cards during COVID-19, and undocumented workers have been excluded from receiving any relief from the government during the pandemic.

Speaking with Business Insider, Feeney doubled down on Monday’s comments, “citing the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” according to the report. His son’s middle name, “King,” is a reference to the civil rights leader, Feeney said.

“I would say the same thing to you, I would say the same thing to Michael Jordan, Missy Robbins, my wife,” Feeney told Business Insider. “During the darkest times, I just want everyone to get through this together.”

Acclaimed restaurants Lilia and Misi, which before the crisis were among the most sought-after reservations in town, both shuttered completely in mid-March when the city first mandated a ban on dining in at restaurants and bars. But a pasta shop may be coming back in some form soon: Feeney noted that he was planning on rehiring a “handful” of staffers to launch a new concept within the next two weeks that is better suited for operating during the pandemic.


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