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‘It’s a Really Tough Call’: NYC Restaurant Industry Reacts to Indoor Dining Return

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Owners, workers, and chefs react to the announcement that indoor dining is returning to the city at 25 percent capacity on September 30

The interior of a closed diner, where chairs are overturned onto tables and bottles of ketchup, salt, and pepper are still propped onto tables
Indoor dining will return to NYC at 25 percent capacity on September 30
Gary He/Eater

Just over six months after its dining rooms closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, New York City will reopen for indoor dining. In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the city’s restaurants will be able to reopen their indoor dining rooms at 25 percent capacity starting on September 30. If positive rates for COVID-19 do not significantly increase, indoor dining capacity will increase to 50 percent, as is the case elsewhere in New York state, by November 1.

The announcement follows weeks of back-and-forth between restaurant owners and elected officials, the former of which have called for a comprehensive indoor dining plan ahead of the end of the city’s outdoor dining program on October 31. Roughly half a year after the COVID-19 shutdown devastated the city’s hospitality industry, more than 1,000 bars and restaurants have permanently closed their doors, with countless others on the way. Many have pointed to the uncertain return of indoor dining as the reason for closing, while those still hanging on have said it wouldn’t be possible to make it through the winter on takeout and delivery alone.

Ahead of this week’s announcement, Mayor Bill de Blasio hinted that indoor dining might not return until the city had made a “huge step forward” in fighting the virus — possibly including “a vaccine in the spring” — while just one day earlier, Cuomo said that reopening hinged on better enforcement of social distancing violations.

For now though, New York City has a reopening date on the calendar. Below, Eater is cataloguing responses from the restaurant industry to this announcement. This article will continue to be updated with more responses.


From Douglas Kim, chef and owner of Jeju Noodle Bar:

In order for us to set up indoor dining, we need more time. I’m pretty sure a lot of people are excited about this. But this is too short of notice. I’ll have to hire more people to cover indoor dining. But what if the government says this is not working out? Then I’ll have to turn around and lay off people. I want people to come here and work, but I also want to guarantee their jobs.

And on a personal level, I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with indoor dining yet. I don’t feel safe. There’s people coming through the restaurant now to use the bathroom, but with indoor dining, they are going to start taking off their masks inside the restaurant. If there was a vaccine, I’d be more relieved on a personal level.

I really think they should extend outdoor dining. So many people are spending money that way. Let us figure out how to operate during winter.

Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, owner of Ruby’s Vintage in Harlem

We are eagerly awaiting further clarity on the Governor’s requirements for restaurants to resume indoor dining. We hope that the plan will include other key components needed for our industry’s survival including an extension of outdoor dining beyond October 31 as well as a comprehensive support that addresses the rent, utilities and other costs that our restaurants have accrued during the pandemic.

The math doesn’t work covering 100 percent of our expenses on 25-30 percent of our revenues. The recovery strategy will need to address all of the stakeholders who have been impacted by this including property owners seeking rent from restaurant tenants; utility companies seeking energy payments; as well as restaurant operators and other small businesses trying to hang on until spring of next year.

Without a comprehensive approach to these issues, NYC’s local independent restaurant scene could give way to large corporate chains vying to take commercial spaces resulting from small business closures; and we could potentially see the “re-mallification” of our city’s Main streets and Main streets throughout the U.S.

From Roni Mazumdar of Adda and Rahi:

We think it’s a move in the right direction but 25 percent is not a sustainable number. Need it around 75 percent to make the business work or some government program to subsidize. Otherwise we are back to square one.

From Giselle Deiaco, owner of Northern Italian restaurant Avena:

We are financially not viable at 25 percent capacity with no bar service and closed by midnight. On the other hand, it’s a measured response to re-opening, with the public health in mind, to prevent a spike or second wave of COVID cases. As restaurateurs, we have to navigate these untested waters, still produce, to spur economic growth. I mean, we can’t stay at home forever. The economy has to go ahead. I mean, who’s gonna feed us?

From the Service Workers Coalition, which operates a cash network set up during the pandemic to support service industry workers:

We find this very troubling and disheartening. First and foremost, policing is a fundamentally flawed approach to public safety. Our economy and our industry is in shambles due to the wild mismanagement of the pandemic, yes. But our society is in shambles due to a rabid and unchecked reign of a racist police force.

During curfew the NYPD routinely harassed and detained essential workers. We can not stand for restaurant workers, many of whom may be undocumented, to be subject to the fear of this harassment or threat of actual physical danger perpetrated by the police mid shift. Beyond that it’s just simply absurd that we can not seem to learn from our mistakes.

Take the money we are going to use to hire, train and employ those 400 “officers” and give it directly to restaurant workers so they can stay home and safely housed until there is an actual strategy for safety, such as a vaccine. Fund food, not cops. And lastly why on earth would opening to 25 percent indoor aid in making any bottom line here in NYC? We feel that patrons who will insist on taking up the 25 percent will most likely be some of the worst, only concerned with themselves and their righteous attachment to capitalism.

Ultimately this is just another demoralizing gesture Cuomo is making to accommodate the wealthy in this city. It won’t save restaurants. It will only allow the state to wash its hands of their futures and ours.

From Leticia Skai Young Mohan, owner of Lolo’s Seafood Shack in Harlem:

Even though interior dining is approved for Q4 of 2020, consumer behavior has changed. For guests to be safely seated inside, restaurant owners need extended use of our sidewalk cafes and roadway platforms while also doing take out and delivery. Provide us with exterior dining year-round by allowing owners to add vestibules and heaters to the exterior and roadway enclosures that we have built out with already stretched resources would help to keep diners and delivery separate and provide more safety to everyone. We need outdoor dining hours to be expanded to what they were pre-COVID.

From Kev Graham, owner of new Williamsburg Caribbean restaurant Kokomo:

It’s a sigh of relief to know that we will survive through the winter. We can’t wait for everyone to finally experience what we’ve created inside the restaurant. Let’s just say it’s incredible.

From Alex Raij, co-owner of restaurants like La Vara and Txikito:

For us in Brooklyn where our restaurants are open for outdoor dining it would fundamentally mean adding two tables at La Vara because we are so so small. We could not contemplate staying open without extended outdoor dining.

Saint Julivert would not offer indoor seating at 25 percent, we would remain take out only. It might incentivize us to open Txikito, but again only in tandem with prolonged outdoor dining.

The outdoor dining program by accident or by design has been the most animating and equitable program that has come out during Covid for restaurants. Still it favors restaurants with large frontage and a big street facing presence but at least it was easy to sign up for and available to all. I’ve really enjoyed watching people embrace the concept on the guest and restaurant side. It has been the essence of hope.

From Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance:

The New York City restaurant industry has been financially devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a safe return to indoor dining is critical to help save these vital small businesses and jobs. We’re thankful to Governor Cuomo for announcing a return to indoor dining with a blueprint for future expansion. Restaurants are essential to New York’s economic and social fabric, and indoor dining is a key component to the industry’s recovery.

From Ying Ye, marketing manager at Greenwich Village’s newly opened Crop Circle:

We believe it is a positive sign that New York is getting back to track gradually. As a new restaurant opened during the pandemic, we are thrilled to finally have the chance to bring the customers in and enjoy the full experience. Meanwhile, we will redo the indoor set up like adding an extra countertop shield to guarantee the safety and health of our staff and customers. Indoor dining, from now on, will be a new and challenging experience.

From Salil Mehta, owner of Southeast Asian restaurants Laut and Laut Singapura:

This is great news for us, and a good starting point. Hopefully, we can responsibly make this work. It doesn’t really address the issue with rents and landlord-tenant disputes over rent but it gives us a chance to perhaps survive these economic challenges. They haven’t really mentioned what we have to do with the structures we made for outdoor dining. I would hope we can keep it as is to be used whenever possible but in the middle of peak winter outdoor dining, it is useless. Indoor dining will be a learning curve and a new experience again. The fact that we are a service industry and Cuomo thinks it should be mandated by the locals is a scary thought as they may take ineffective or bad service as an excuse to report a business.

From Gina Buck, the general manager at casual Williamsburg spot Concord Hill:

We are excited to hear about the indoor dining but there are still so many questions. It would be nice if there were more concrete guidelines as right now we don’t have clear ground rules. The big unknown is the enhanced ‘proper ventilation’ that will be required (especially when it gets too cold to keep windows open). How much is that going to cost?

And how will the 25 percent capacity be defined? Is it based on the number of tables we had pre-pandemic or the maximum occupancy certificate that includes staff as well as guests?

Another big questions is: Will the guests want to dine inside? How will they feel about having their temperature taken, designated person for contact tracking, etc. Safety for both guests and staff is the biggest concern.

From Hakan Swahn, owner of Midtown Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit:

For us, that means we will continue to keep outdoor seating going until the end of October. For us, 25 percent capacity is about 45 seats so it’s very, very good news that we can start serving indoors. It doesn’t mean we are out of the woods but it’s a relief — a temporary relief. We are in the fortunate position that we have a lot of space in several different rooms. We can really ensure that people are separated properly.

From Juan Correa, owner of Peruvian restaurant Llama Inn and Nikkei spot Llama San:

As you can imagine, we are torn. We have opened our restaurants and been willing to operate them at a loss because data suggested outdoor dining was safe and thought it was important to put PPP money to work and back in the hands of our staff. We have used 100 percent of PPP on wages.

Operating at only 25 percent capacity is obviously sub-optimal and depending on how capacity restrictions progress, it will result in many small footprint restaurants furloughing more staff.

We are eager to get guidance from the city and the state on what air filtration system upgrades will be necessary so that we can plan accordingly and make sure our staff and guests are safe.

We encourage our Representatives and Senators to put politics aside and do what’s best for small businesses and the working class. Similarly, we ask Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio to proactively work to save the restaurant industry by helping us with rent relief and utility payments forgiveness.

From Maria Di Rende, the owner of Enzo’s on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx:

I am happy that we got to this point. It’s a start in the right direction.

One concern that I have is that when they did outdoor dining they put up guidelines that they kept changing on us. We’d like to have better [directions] and know what they actually want instead of constantly changing as we go along. We spent so much money trying to get outdoor dining right.

From Moshe Schulman, managing partner at Kindred and Ruffian in the East Village:

25 percent indoor seating is a nice gesture and perhaps meaningful for some restaurants, but for our spaces it is not a model that would be sustainable when it’s snowing. What the restaurant industry really needs is for Congress to quickly pass a second round of [the Paycheck Protection Program] and provide grants to small businesses. That would go a long way in keeping guests and staff safe and protecting so many hospitality jobs that have been effected.

Also, does anyone know that a majority of customers want to eat inside? The customers who we’ve spoken to have been pretty clear they don’t. Both customers and staff seem especially wary. It’s not terrible that they are trying with 25 percent now while it’s relatively safe and before it gets cold, but for the small businesses, staff, and customers who don’t want it, are they going to protect other options to allow us to continue to operate safely?

From Bari Musacchio, co-owner of Nolita restaurant Baz Bagels:

This is a little too soon for us to make a decision with the information at hand, however we are supportive of restaurants that need this 25 percent desperately. At least until we see how this goes, it’s a no brainer for me to wait [and not reopen indoor dining as soon as possible]. We’ve invested in outdoor seating, PPE, safety checklist protocols, cleaning schedule, temperature check station and everything that we have had to do so far including socially distancing all the stations in the kitchen. Since we are small with limited investment capabilities, we’re going to wait and see what happens with reopening before committing to re-investing in another temporary phase. We will wait to see if this is a permanent step in the indoor direction before moving forward.

Also while business has been challenging, our staff and customer health is still our priority. If the virus does spike — is this what we’re risking it on? 25 percent? 7.5 covers in our dining room ( capacity 35)? I am having a hard time financially justifying 7.5 covers at a risky situation that just yesterday was referred to as “negligent and reckless” by the Governor. So unsure how to navigate staff and customer health and safety with mixed communication on a vital subject.

However, I understand the need for some of our friends in the industry to reopen for indoor dining sooner, especially if they have no other choice. There is no “one size fits all” solution for this. It’s a really tough call between public health and heartbreaking business decisions that severely affect our family and staff as a small family-funded business. I don’t know what the right answer is but this seems like a step in the right direction for the city.

From Sonny Solomon, owner of casual Indian spot Veeray Da Dhaba:

Reopening indoor dining is definitely a positive step forward. 25 percent capacity is less but it’s surely better than nothing at all. Dining at a restaurant is an experience for the guests and we’re excited to offer this to our customers. Due to construction next door, we’re unable to offer outside dining at the moment and this will truly help us create a rapport with our guests and help us present our food to both Indian food veterans and new guests.

From Jeffrey Garcia, the president of the New York State Latino Restaurant Bar and Lounge Association:

While it’s true that something is better than nothing, our members feel a bit let down that we were not given an equal playing field with our neighbors in Long Island and Westchester.

The reality is we cannot bring back employees or pay rent with a 25 percent capacity limit. This guidance also comes with a whole host of rules our neighbors did not have to comply with such as temperature checks, enhanced air systems and contact tracing and while we are enthusiastic to do whatever it takes to make indoor dining as safe as possible our concern is that this just invites more heavy-handed ‘gotcha’ enforcement.

We will continue to work with the Governor and Mayor to bring awareness around these issues and we’ll continue to advocate for our small restaurant owners.

From Howard Kalachnikoff, the owner of soon-to-open Ridgewood restaurant Rolo’s:

We think this is great news. Other large cities have been able to navigate indoor dining already and NYC has done such a good job in keeping the COVID numbers down. We’re happy that the restaurant community finally has a chance to demonstrate how well we can handle this opportunity and we’re excited to welcome those people who are ready to dine indoors again.

From Randy Peers, CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce

Opening indoor dining is a step in the right direction for protecting more than 5,500 Brooklyn restaurants that are concerned about surviving the cold winter months. Brooklyn’s restaurant industry is essential to the borough’s economic recovery, and safely reopening indoor dining will help these small businesses pay rent, predict and plan for the future and rehire staff. Although 25% capacity may not be a viable solution for all Brooklyn restaurants, we are grateful to Governor Cuomo for helping to save our neighborhood businesses and jobs. And as a reminder to all restaurants across the borough, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce has grants available for deep cleanings and thermometers in stock.

From Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group:

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