“Eater editors get asked one question more than any other: Where should I eat right now?” Those are the words that formerly introduced Eater’s restaurant guides to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. These days, though, the question most asked of Eater editors isn’t what or where to eat, but whether it’s safe to do so at all.
After months of anticipation, the city finally has a date for indoor dining on the calendar, and New Yorkers must once again ask themselves what they’re comfortable with when it comes to eating and serving food right now. For a handful of restaurant owners, the return of indoor dining means their businesses have a shot at surviving until spring — but many, many others have questioned the safety and viability of bringing customers into their dining rooms. Meanwhile, in a poll of Eater readers, respondents overwhelmingly shared that they still have concerns about indoor dining, with nearly a quarter of people saying they plan to “wait and see.”
Ahead of the city’s return to partial indoor dining on September 30, Eater surveyed roughly a dozen reporters, editors, food photographers, and critics — all of whom have covered the hospitality industry during the pandemic — about their plans for indoor dining next month. Their responses, which range from “absolutely not” to an emphatic yes, are excerpted below. Note: Respondents were asked about their indoor dining plans before September 25, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that outdoor dining will extend permanently. Answers have been edited for length.
Abigail Koffler, freelance journalist and author of This Needs Hot Sauce:
I won’t be eating indoors because we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and I don’t believe the workers are sufficiently protected. Indoor dining has led to spikes elsewhere and this city has enough challenges right now (police brutality, the start of school, hunger). I’m a native New Yorker and both of my parents had COVID this spring so I take it very seriously. I also don’t think I would enjoy dining inside right now, the risks would outweigh the fun and there are other ways to support restaurants. I would dine out into the winter even if I have to bundle up.
Anna Hezel, senior editor, Taste:
I haven’t eaten indoors at all during COVID and am a long ways away from doing it. I’m pretty mentally prepared to hole up for the fall and winter, supporting my favorite restaurants with lots of takeout, and tipping as if it were a big fun meal out with lots of friends and lots of drinks.
Bao Ong, food and drink editor, Time Out:
Everyone’s comfort level is different. I’ll be taking a wait-and-see approach for the time being. Many restaurants are taking precautions, but if there’s anything that’s been consistent in 2020, it’s that everything feels unpredictable.
I’ll continue ordering takeout and delivery from local spots in Queens, but now that the weather is cooler, I also plan to do more cooking at home. I’m trying to prepare myself for the possibility of spending a lot of time at home like we did at the beginning of the pandemic. But I want to continue supporting restaurants whether it’s by buying gift cards, ordering meal kits or donating money.
Chris Crowley, writer, Grub Street:
New York’s transmission rates have been really low for a while now, right, and other parts of the state have been open for indoor dining in some limited capacity. But people are worried about a second wave, and for me, personally, indoor dining doesn’t seem worth the risk for the people who are working there. There are too many issues for them. Many don’t have adequate health insurance or any health insurance at all, and the CDC has linked COVID risk with dining out. At the same time, people who work in these places are suffering financially, and so many are still out of work. We’re going to see how this plays out, and if this limited indoor dining leads to a spike in cases. But as long as the consensus is that being indoors with strangers is a bad idea, I’d rather just get takeout, or cook for myself.
Clay Williams, photographer and co-founder of Black Food Folks:
As much as I want to, I don’t expect to eat indoors at a restaurant before the year is over regardless of what the city allows. I’m not convinced of the safety, enforcement or implementation. We’ll see what happens, but I won’t be the first to try it out, personally. I do hope the process of re-opening begins, just carefully. Pushing to open up for business reasons rather than health reasons is dangerous and will only lead to a second wave and possibly another lockdown. Nobody wants that.
The ingenuity of the industry has been one of the only redeeming feature of this terrible year: Cocktails to go, restaurants doubling as grocery stores and selling dinner kits, reclaiming parking spots for outdoor dining, it’s been brilliant. I’ll support by frequenting them for as long as they’re still offered, hopefully long after the pandemic is over.
Emma Orlow, freelance journalist for the New York Times, Bon Appétit, and Eater:
As someone who had COVID in mid-March and has several family members and friends who are immunocompromised (not to mention, for a short while, did restaurant criticism myself), it’s going to be a big, emphatic, absolutely not from me. My heart hurts thinking about the immense financial and emotional strains on small businesses and their employees, but come cold weather, if outdoor set-ups are no longer feasible, I’ll just continue to do takeout or pick-up—otherwise it’s too risky for all parties involved. If a diner at the restaurant or any employee contracts COVID, the restaurant may be forced to entirely shut down, or, worse, hide the information from the public.
Gary He, contributor for Eater and Bloomberg, author of Astrolabe:
I’ve been the only food journalist on the ground covering COVID-19’s impact on the city’s restaurants and service workers since before the shutdown, before there were masks, before there were precautions. My exposure levels doing that coverage, like on the raucous last night at Gotham Bar and Grill or with the mob of delivery workers outside Carbone, far exceeds whatever I will experience doing 25 percent capacity indoor dining during a cautious reopening. As such, the plan is to continue the on-the-ground reporting, now from the inside of restaurants once more.
New York City is one of the last places in the world to reopen for indoor dining — many cities have done so safely, some have not. The trauma of being the epicenter of this disease is real and I get it. But if you are concerned about the safety of service workers at your favorite restaurants, it is actually your moral obligation to dine indoors as often as possible. If you purport to be a respectful and responsible guest, each time you do so would take away a coveted slot from someone who is not as well-behaved as you. Thanks for your service, mask up when you’re not eating, and tip well!
Hannah Albertine, staff writer, the Infatuation:
Right now eating outdoors is still my first choice. It’s hard to say exactly when or where, but I do plan on trying indoor dining at some point in the not-so-far-away future. As a food writer, I believe it’s my job to paint the fullest picture of what’s happening in New York City’s restaurants — and I want to do it in a way that feels like a human being is actually behind the words. To me, that means checking out indoor dining so that I can help New Yorkers make the best possible decisions for themselves.
Restaurants are in trouble. I hope people realize how serious it is. Please text your friends right now about the Restaurants Act and urge them to contact their representatives. Maybe use all caps. While the bulk of industry support needs to come from major federal relief and rent forgiveness, I also think our favorite restaurants need us to keep ordering food from them.
Pete Wells, restaurant critic, the New York Times:
I have not dined indoors in any restaurant since March. I haven’t made up my mind entirely about when I’ll go back to eating indoors. I don’t want to rule anything out and I don’t believe blanket statements are very useful in this case, because some restaurants are much better equipped for indoor dining just as some places really lucked out in their sidewalk and street-dining spaces. I am basically planning to eat outside until I freeze solid. Some chef I’ve antagonized will probably put my frozen body on display as a trophy, like Han Solo in Jabba the Hutt’s hangout.
Robert Sietsema, senior critic, Eater New York:
I feel like I’ll eventually be eating indoors in some situations. But I definitely am going to wait and see how it goes. If disease is being spread by indoor dining, there will probably be some statistical or anecdotal evidence within a month or so. Until then, I am very happy eating outdoors and carrying out. A greater challenge is how to get to far-flung places not reachable by bike. I’m still not comfortable riding the subways, though there are many who are doing so at this point. Luckily, I am gradually developing a pod of people with cars who are willing to drive to restaurants, windows open.
Ryan Sutton, chief critic, Eater New York:
I won’t dine indoors anytime soon. I find it unconscionable to take part in a leisure activity that leaves underinsured and underpaid workers exposed to illness and death in exchange for 90 minutes of gastronomic diversion that could quite frankly be better enjoyed in a park or in an apartment. Honestly the fact that there isn’t a vaccine isn’t even the biggest reason I won’t dine out indoors; it’s that our country has institutionalized a culture of disrespect for restaurant workers through weak regulations and insufficient social welfare support. How is it that you can get kicked out of an empty museum — with as much square footage as Wayne Manor — for taking off your mask but you can sit in a small restaurant for two hours without a face covering while ordering vodka sodas from your waiter who’s scared for their life?
As diners we set examples, and simply the act of engaging in a demonstrably dangerous and non-essential economic transaction where the privileged party is protected and the vulnerable party is exposed perpetuates the same structural inequities that made this industry so problematic in the first place.
Tae Yoon, New York City editor, Thrillist
With all of the challenges that the industry has endured since March, the reopening of indoor dining is the vital next step in helping to support restaurants and bars. This moment has been six months in the making, and for the restaurants and bars that are open and ready for business, I think it’s important that we show up as a way of saying thank you and welcome back. New York has shown that we can come together and overcome, and with all of the safety precautions and new guidelines put in place, I’m looking forward to eating indoors again.
The editor of East Village blog EV Grieve, who asked to remain unnamed:
I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. I’d like to check out the indoor setups before committing. For instance, will tables be near open windows? Will they be more than six feet apart? What kind of circulation is there inside? The usual considerations during this time. To date, I’ve seen several places that I like in the East Village that are setting up for September 30 and the arrangements look very promising. It took me a little while before I was comfortable eating curbside — I’m sure the same will happen with dining inside.