Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday that restaurants in New York City will be allowed to increase indoor capacity from 35 to 50 percent starting on March 19. New Jersey restaurants are also increasing indoor capacity to 50 percent on the same day, according to the announcement.
“In partnership with the State of New Jersey, we are expanding our indoor dining openings in New York City to 50 percent,” Cuomo said in a statement on the news. “We will continue to follow the science and react accordingly.”
Last week, Cuomo announced that all restaurants in New York, except establishments in NYC, would be allowed to start operating at 75 percent capacity indoors starting on March 19. NYC restaurants have been allowed to operate at 35 percent capacity since February 26. Nearby, Massachusetts and Connecticut lifted all capacity restrictions on restaurants starting on March 1 and March 19, respectively.
Restaurant owners and hospitality industry advocates have been calling for an expansion to half capacity for some time now. While the rest of New York State had half capacity dining even before this recent announcement to increase capacity to 75 percent statewide, NYC has been restricted to lower capacity limits. State officials have continually cited NYC’s density and the fact that it was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. as a reason for a more cautious reopening plan in the city.
A group of 74 restaurants had previously filed a lawsuit to force the state’s hand to reopen indoor dining at half capacity. In recent weeks, cases and hospitalizations have continued to trend downward, though the rate of decline appears to have reduced. As of March 8, the positivity rate on a seven-day average was 6.23 percent down from over 7 percent last month, according to city data. The state’s positivity rate for NYC on a seven-day average was lower at 3.9 percent as of March 9 (the city and state use different metrics to track data).
Cuomo hasn’t ruled out imposing new restrictions should cases rise again, and health experts have warned against the recent relaxation of restrictions across the country as the spread of new variants of COVID-19 pose a threat. In NYC, health officials confirmed earlier today that the NYC variant of the virus is now more infectious than the U.K. strain, and accounts for a majority of the cases in the city right now. Restaurant workers started receiving their vaccinations last month, but it will still be a while before a majority have received both doses of the vaccine.
A study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month showed a link between a spike in COVID-19 cases and eating in restaurants and a lack of mask mandates last year. The National Restaurant Association denounced the report saying it didn’t take into account indoor activities at other businesses or show separate data for indoor and outdoor dining. The CDC’s findings didn’t prove cause and effect but they’re still in line with other studies and what health experts have previously outlined in regards to an increased threat of the virus spreading indoors.
While restaurant workers and owners still remain divided over the safety of the return of indoor dining as a majority of the population remains unvaccinated, many in the industry will celebrate the announcement today as another boost toward trying to remain afloat amid the uncertainty of the next few months.
“Cautiously and safely increasing indoor dining capacity at New York City restaurants to 50 percent, with an eye toward expanding in the future, more vaccinations, and dedicated restaurant relief on its way from the federal government gives our industry some optimism among all the doom and gloom of this past year,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, in a statement.