The latest COVID-19 wave — sparked by the highly transmissible omicron variant — is steamrolling through NYC, disrupting any fragile sense of normalcy that the industry had settled into over the past few months. As of December 18, the COVID-19 test positivity rate on a seven-day average in NYC was 7.65 percent, according to city data, over double the 3.13 percent reported two weeks prior. The surge in positive cases sent restaurants reeling as they scrambled to figure out how to handle the emergency. Once again, there was no government playbook for restaurants to consult — businesses are not mandated to shut down in the case of a positive test, according to a city official with the mayor’s office — leaving restaurants to piece together their own game plan.
In the past week, some have gone ahead and canceled indoor dining for the foreseeable future. Others are choosing to stay shut for weeks, if not months. Some larger operations are trying to stitch together a way to stay open through the holiday season, typically the most financially lucrative time of the year before restaurants head into the dead of winter. Restaurants are grappling with what running a business looks like long-term as another spike in COVID-19 cases hits the city and threatens an already battered industry.
Helen Nguyen, the owner of Saigon Social on the Lower East Side, made the call to close her Vietnamese restaurant for indoor dining roughly 15 minutes before service on Saturday, December 18. Nobody on her team had been exposed to coronavirus, as far as she knows. “It was more precautionary,” she says. “As I was reading up, it seemed inevitable to come across diners that either were exposed or were sick.”
In Brooklyn, Angela Austin, who owns the trio of Milk & Pull coffee shops with husband Joe Austin, also decided last week to cease indoor service at her cafes in Bed-Stuy and Ridgewood, which seat around 15 people each. She considered temporarily closing, as she had seen other restaurants in Brooklyn do, but she ultimately decided to pivot to a takeout and delivery business model after talking to her staff.
“Everyone still wanted to be at work, but they just didn’t feel comfortable with people being inside,” she says.
Restaurateur Jeff Katz told his team of 180 employees that the group’s trio of Financial District establishments — upscale neighborhood restaurant Crown Shy; tasting menu spot Saga; and cocktail bar Overstory — was temporarily shutting down on Friday, December 17, after staffers sent a flurry of messages reporting household exposures. The daylong shutdown meant upwards of 350 canceled reservations, three scrapped holiday parties, and between $80,000 to $100,000 in lost sales. According to Katz, employees were paid through the duration of the closure.
Katz and co-owner and chef James Kent contracted a private company to come in and administer rapid PCR tests to everyone — which cost between $15,000 to $20,000, Katz estimates — and reopened Crown Shy and Overstory the following day with a smaller team. At-home massage and physical therapy company Zeel — which pivoted to also offer COVID-19 care during the pandemic — is scheduled to come into the restaurants for free and administer volunteer booster shots to staffers on December 21.
In early December, St. John Frizell decided to hibernate his celebrated Red Hook spot Fort Defiance — which just reopened in a new location in August — until March 2022. Frizell first made the decision because the spot, known for its cocktails, ran into hangups with securing its liquor license, and couldn’t generate enough profit as a general store alone. Now, “we’re even more certain that this was the right thing to do,” Frizell says.
With January and February coming up, historically a less profitable season for restaurants, Frizell said that “going into protective mode,” was the only decision without the revenue from a cocktail menu. “The only other time we’ve had to shut down for this long was Hurricane Sandy, and that was because of flooding,” says Frizell. “This brings me right back.” Nearby, revived Brooklyn institution Gage & Tollner and its newly-launched upstairs bar, Sunken Harbor Club, where Frizell is a partner, is shutting down until December 29.
In the midst of the whiplash, some restaurants are combining forces to figure out what to do next. East Village upstart Yellow Rose — which is temporarily shuttered while its 30-person team waits for PCR test results — posted an open call on Instagram for others to join owners Krystiana and Dave Rizo on a Zoom call to talk through support and strategy for the coming months.
“Right now, we don’t really have a platform where all of us are communicating,” Krystiana says. “It’s just one of those things where you go on Instagram, and you’re like, ‘Yep, this restaurant’s closing,’ or ‘This restaurant’s doing takeout and delivery-only.’ I thought it would be a good idea to kind of throw it out there like, ‘Hey, would anybody want to sit down, and have a meeting and discuss what your plan is, and what our plan is, and just kind of pick each other’s brains,’ and we got a really overwhelming response.” A group of 15 people are now meeting virtually on December 21 to discuss their future plans.
Krystiana also wants to see the city hand out rapid tests to restaurants, while others want to see the return of to-go cocktails and propane heaters for outdoor dining. None of that has materialized yet, but over the past few days, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been pressing vaccinations while the city attempts to get more testing units up and running. “It’s important to not think we are back in the spring of 2020, or even the winter of 2020 going into 2021,” de Blasio said at a press conference on Sunday. “We’re in an entirely different reality because this is a very highly vaccinated city where people have much more protection than ever before.”
As of December 18, the state reported that there were about 1,100 COVID-19 patients in NYC hospitals compared to nearly 15,000 such patients at the peak of the pandemic in April 2020. Across the five boroughs, 71.3 percent of residents ages 5 and older have been fully vaccinated, according to city data.
On the heels of the latest COVID surge, restaurants are simultaneously trying to sketch out a road map while knowing the ground could shift again any moment. Katz is hoping to reopen Saga along with Crown Shy and Overstory on December 21, and will be implementing weekly rapid antigen testing among staff. Meanwhile, for Frizell’s staff of 18, they will be furloughed through the end of the year; for January and February, employees have, according to Frizell, been offered shifts at Gage & Tollner. However, others may likely be scrambling to find new work or file for unemployment.
Workers, who rarely receive healthcare from their jobs, are among the most vulnerable to these last minute changes. This time around, however, they can’t rely on a safety net with less robust state and federal unemployment programs. As one Brooklyn server told Grub Street, “If they don’t lock down and give us unemployment again, I think I need to move back home,” he said. “I’m totally out of money, behind on bills, barely making rent.”
Especially in strained times like these, management and workers’ needs are often at odds. For those restaurants who do stay open — despite the uptick, some are even forging ahead with holiday parties — workers may likely feel financial pressure to take shifts.
Smaller operations are finding various ways to cope with the latest pandemic challenge. Saigon Social only reopened for indoor dining three months ago, making it one of the last restaurants in her neighborhood to do so, according to Nguyen. The return of lunch and dinner rushes from indoor service had become one of the restaurant’s driving revenue sources, she says, especially heading into the holiday season, one of the busiest times of the year for many restaurant and bar owners. Still, Nguyen says she’s certain it’s the right decision.
“The profit is not worth the health of our team and the community,” she says.
Milk & Pull now sells coffee and bags of roast beans for takeout, like Austin has been doing from the company’s third, smaller location in Bushwick, which never reopened for indoor service following the shutdown last winter. Austin is prepared to keep her dining rooms closed as long as necessary — at least until “positivity rates start getting lower again,” she says.
The only issue that appears to be clear is that, without overarching governmental guidance, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for New York’s countless restaurants and their employees. “How can you adjust your operation to know the best way to continue,” Katz says. “It’s really a balance. What is the right way to go forward?”