Five months into the pandemic, few things are certain for restaurants and bars in New York City, where state regulations are announced over Twitter and updates to dining guidelines can come with less than 24 hours’ notice. In interviews with state leaders, small-business owners, and local reporters, though, one thing is abundantly clear: No one knows how many restaurants have closed in New York City.
Since the start of the pandemic, Eater has documented more than 150 restaurant and bar closings. In recent weeks, there’s been a surge in the number of weekly reported closings, with close to 70 occurring in the last month alone. Yet if studies and reports on small-business closures are anything to go by, the number of documented closings constitutes a fraction of the toll the pandemic has taken on the restaurant industry so far.
In April, the New York State Restaurant Association predicted that as many as 11 percent of the state’s restaurants and bars could close by the end of that month, totaling roughly 5,500 establishments. In August, the New York Times estimated that 2,800 small businesses had closed in New York City since March 1, a third of which were restaurants and bars, according to data it gleaned from Yelp.
These estimates, while helpful, capture only part of the pandemic’s impact on the city’s hospitality industry so far, which experts say is likely much larger.
Given that there is no official city or state organization keeping track of closings in real time, it has become nearly impossible to assess the magnitude of the current turmoil for the restaurant industry. “It’s hard to get an accurate assessment right now,” says Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association. For its April survey, NYSRA received responses from more than 6,500 restaurants, but the overwhelming feedback was largely due to the temporary closures and diners’ decision to stay home in those early weeks of the pandemic.
“We were able to get a high number of responses because we were completely shut down at the time,” Fleischut says. That’s not necessarily the case right now.
The impossibility of tracking restaurant closures has also been felt by local reporters and bloggers across the city, many of whom have been at the forefront of documenting shutterings until government data becomes available. Their efforts to keep on top of closures have also been hampered in large part by the sheer volume of restaurants and bars closing.
“It is almost too much to keep up with right now,” says Mike Mishkin, editor of local blog I Love the Upper West Side, which has been tracking closures in the neighborhood since the start of the pandemic. “I’m definitely unable to get 100 percent of them.” Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Upper West Side editor would typically give each restaurant that closed its own short tribute. Recently, though, he had to abandon that practice as a result of seven restaurants closing in the span of a week. “There was no time to write separate pieces,” he says.
At this point in the pandemic, it’s become more difficult to find out whether a restaurant is actually closed, or whether its shutdown is only temporary, according to Mishkin. Before the pandemic, the Upper West Side editor might have visited a restaurant in person or called its owner to confirm a closure, but today he’s more likely to find boarded-up windows, disconnected phone lines, deserted social media accounts, and expired websites. “It’s gotten really hard to get in touch with owners these days,” he says. “If they’ve closed or are thinking of closing, they’re most likely not excited about communicating that.”
It’s a far more daunting task to track closings of smaller establishments, especially those with no social media presence. “Lots of restaurants are quietly closing,” says Joanne Kwong, owner of Chinatown and Chelsea Market’s historic Pearl River Mart and a member of the city’s small-business advisory council. “The [steel] grates just go down. There’s no press release or announcement.”
The process of tracking closings is further complicated by restaurants that appear to have closed but have actually relocated, rebranded, or renovated their spaces. In July, New York City mourned the loss of East Village institution Odessa, a decades-old Ukrainian diner and one of the last 24-hour restaurants in the neighborhood. Several local news publications reported on the closure, including Eater, which likened the loss to the end of an era for the old-school East Village. Only Odessa never closed.
Two days before the diner was expected to shutter — and a full five days after the closing was first reported — co-owner Steve Helios clarified that Odessa was only shutting down for temporary renovations, not permanently closing. “We’ll be back,” he said in an interview with Gothamist. The editor of EV Grieve attributed the misreporting to a “miscommunication among restaurant staff,” but the situation only underscored the challenges of keeping track of closings right now.
In many cases, the owners of restaurants that appear to have permanently closed are waiting out the pandemic behind closed doors. For some, that’s because they don’t have enough space to make outdoor seating worth it, as is the case at East Village gin bar the Winslow, which only had room for four tables outside, and has decided to shut its doors intermittently. “It’s really been a daily decision on whether opening that day will cost us too much money,” says the general manager at the bar, who asked to remain unnamed in this article.
Many others are closed temporarily, waiting to hear more on long-term policy changes and more government aid before they decide whether to reopen or permanently close, according to Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a group that represents thousands of restaurants in the city.
A Hospitality Alliance survey earlier this month revealed that nearly 40 percent of surveyed restaurants in the city were unable to pay any rent in July. Long-term rent relief, extending the existing moratorium on evictions, and the suspension on personal liability clauses — where landlords can go after restaurateurs’ personal finances if businesses close — are among the factors owners are looking at as they weigh whether to reopen or close, Rigie says. Similar to New York City’s takeout cocktail program, those policies are temporary, and if any were allowed to expire, Rigie says that a “massive wave” of restaurant closures would likely ensue.
More closures may also come to light when New York City restaurants and bars eventually reopen for indoor dining. “If you don’t see a restaurant reopen at that point, they’re not going to reopen,” says Fleischut of the NYSRA, which may make it easier to track citywide closures.
Still, the true extent of closings may not be revealed for at least another year, says Rigie, when restaurant permits with the state health department have expired: These permits must be renewed annually, meaning the number that expire may offer one estimate of closings during the pandemic. “Unfortunately, there’s no government agency that covers closings in real time,” says Rigie. “Until we have that data, it’s going to be a slow bleed.”
Without more federal aid or long-term solutions for the beleaguered hospitality industry — including the $120 billion bill to support independent restaurants — many closures are likely in store. “With each new phase of reopening, we’ve been looking for light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s no phase five,” says Kwong of Pearl River Mart. “We’ve hit the end of the road.”