Following through on his announcement from earlier in the week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined NYC’s return to indoor dining at 25 percent capacity at a press conference earlier today. Indoor dining will officially resume on February 14 and restaurants will have to follow all the same rules that were in place when indoor dining first returned — at the same capacity — on September 30 last year.
“Twenty-five precent is better than zero and that’s where we are now,” said Cuomo during the press conference. “If hell develops and the sky falls and a new variant explodes onto the scene, then we’ll have the opposite problem.” He also added that indoor dining capacity could rise if the positivity rate continues to drop.
Cuomo didn’t, however, grant the hospitality industry’s request to push the existing 10 p.m. curfew back to 12 a.m. as he continued expressing concerns over potential late-night crowding outside bars and restaurants as the reason behind that decision. Cuomo’s decision comes on the heels of several major cities across the U.S. opening indoor dining in the past week including Chicago, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. California recently moved to reopen outdoor dining for the first time since November.
This past week, Cuomo noted the decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state as the reasons behind lifting some restrictions. Cuomo said the positivity rate in NYC had declined from 7.1 percent on January 5 to 4.9 percent on January 28 (the state’s numbers differ from the city’s which show a higher positivity rate), though parts of the city still have higher positivity rates like the Bronx, where the positivity rate sits at 7.06 percent.
The overall drop mirrors a trend nationwide with new coronavirus cases declining over the past two weeks. Several health experts have cautioned people against dropping their guard, however, as new variants of the virus risk reducing the progress by the current vaccination effort. Cuomo didn’t rule out adding back more restrictions should the virus change course once again in NYC, but said his decision was based on the advice of health experts and came after weighing the costs of keeping restaurants closed, and decimating the industry further.
The announcement, however, comes just days after Cuomo indicated that he had no plans of announcing a return to indoor dining in NYC anytime soon. His administration, though, has been pummeled by a series of lawsuits by different restaurants and industry groups to reopen indoor dining. In Erie County, a judge’s temporary ruling prompted the Cuomo administration to allow indoor dining at half capacity in most parts of the state except NYC. Previously, the state’s micro-cluster approach to controlling the virus resulted in a confusing patchwork of restrictions where different parts of the state fell under designated red, orange, and yellow zones.
Many in the hospitality industry are celebrating the decision, but say the state needs to do more. The NYC Hospitality Alliance’s executive director Andrew Rigie pointed to the state allowing half capacity dining in parts of New York that have higher infection rates than NYC, and said the state should have opened indoor dining immediately instead of waiting till February 14. State and city officials have countered that the density within the five boroughs sets it apart and poses a greater risk for the spread of the virus.
But restaurant advocates have also pointed to the state’s own data, which reported that 1.4 percent of COVID-19 cases came from restaurants and bars compared to nearly 74 percent for private indoor gatherings during the fall. They also added that restaurant owners have undertaken costly measures to install air filters and various safety precautions to make diners feel safe indoors. Still, others, including Eater critic Ryan Sutton, have argued that the federal government has failed the restaurant industry by not paying workers and businesses to remain closed for public safety reasons.
Since the closure of indoor dining in December, dozens of restaurants have gone into hibernation mode as they find it too difficult to stay afloat with outdoor dining being undependable during the winters month. Many business owners have stated they hope to reopen in the springtime, but if these restaurants never reopen, they will join the more than a 1,000 restaurants that have permanently closed since the start of the pandemic. Several hospitality industry advocates have argued that many more closures will be on the way if the state doesn’t move to lift more restrictions soon.